Monday, June 19, 2006

No Way To Run A Space Program

by Tom Bozzo

Around the time I'd first stumbled on my blogging buddy Drek's blog, Drek had posted an appreciation of the spacey computer strategy game Master of Orion II ("MOO II"), which was second only to Sid Meier's Civilization among my grad school time killers. MOO II puts you in charge of a civilization that starts with limited interstellar travel capabilities. (It could be boring if you had to wait hundreds or thousands of game-years for stuff to happen.) Late in a game, enormous starfleets zoom across the galaxy at astounding speeds, bearing horrible weaponry that makes the New Battlestar Galactica Cylons look like signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (*)

Even SF that doesn't rely on major violations of the known laws of physics to advance the plot, such as Ken MacLeod's recent (and Hugo-award nominated) Learning the World, often assumes that it will be possible to pack large numbers of actual biological humans into big spaceships and embark on multi-generation interstellar trips. Though since LtW is set more than ten thousand years in the future, short of the Rapture of the Nerds arriving in the near future, it's unlikely that MacLeod will be error-checked in 13,000 years.

For the more foreseeable future, it is looking like even human space travel among the planets — a baby step of which is part of George W. Bush's "vision" for space exploration — looks a lot farther off than it would seem, even if we didn't have to trust the Worst President Ever to get the job done. The British SF star Charlie Stross had a depressing little linkfest on his (old) blog detailing a daunting array of technological obstacles on the exploration end of the "vision."

The weak link is us. A recurring theme of Bob Park's space coverage at What's New is that robots happily do lots of stuff in environments where limits of science, technology, and politics must be stretched, if not broken, for people simply to survive. Close as Mars may be, a vicious cycle centered on our frailties makes getting people there with current technology a major challenge.

While mass is a cost enemy of space missions, an interesting point of an article Stross links in his comments is that the U.S. space program has been unusually profligate in launching dead weight into orbit. (The following discussion, I should note in the interest of not pulling an Ann Coulter on y'all, liberally adapts a number of posts at the blog.) In the origins of the Apollo program, GE (**) had designed an Apollo vehicle very similar to what would become the Soviet Soyuz (under development at about the same time). The GE Apollo design offered 50% more habitable volume than the NASA Apollo capsule for the same mass through a modular design that minimized the size of the re-entry vehicle. This in turn reduces the mass of heat shielding, etc. However, NASA had already settled on the Apollo capsule design by the time that it received contractor studies.

Throwing mass into orbit for little or no return really took off with the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle's empty mass of nearly 70T represents a 50-55T mass premium over a non-reusable alternative such as Stross's suggestion of adding a re-entry capsule to turn the ESA's 10T ATV into a passenger transport. The Shuttle's extra mass mostly consists of the airplane elements that allow the shuttle to be flown back to a runway landing and the Space Shuttle Main Engines. Forget about cost for the moment. Over 114 flights, that's nearly 6,000T — 13.2 million pounds — launched into orbit at the U.S. taxpayer's expense with nothing left in space to show for it. That goes some way to explaining why our presence in space is so much more lame than sixties-era visions anticipated.

As for the cost, it might have been justifiable had the Shuttle lived up to original expectations that the orbiters would fly very frequently with minimal refurbishment between flights. It's typical to see launch prices given as roughly $20 million per ton of payload delivered to low earth orbit on an expendable booster of western design; launches on Russian and Chinese hardware are cheaper. The Shuttle's average cost of more than $1 billion per launch has been much higher than that (assuming you wanted to recover the program cost through freight charges), though that's in part because up to 109T of orbiter is sent to orbit with the 23T maximum payload. The incremental launch cost — the cost of whatever you need to add an additional launch to the schedule — is far lower, since much of the program cost is in R&D and other "fixed" infrastructure costs. Somewhere inbetween is an average operating cost, whose magnitude suggests that fly-back orbiters are a dead-end, at least for now, because after 114 flights the Shuttle is much more X-plane than cargo liner.

One might ask what our MBA administration has done to improve things. They take the very MBA-ish approach of giving federal agencies color coded management performance grades, after all.

Do you really need to ask?

Despite having been given, in the Columbia disaster, a golden opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad by terminating the Shuttle program and accelerating the development of a follow-on system, they instead have been throwing billions at the Shuttle that can't be recovered over the remaining program life in the name of — prepare for mordant chuckle — fulfilling U.S. agreements with its international ISS partners (***). Nor have they been willing to mount the one Shuttle mission that might be worth the cost (if not risk) in science.

The Bush II space exploration "vision" theoretically envisions a return to the moon as a warm-up to a visit to Mars — the latter, perhaps, the one Bush I initiative from which fils hasn't made a show of running screaming in the opposite direction from père. My theory has been that the "vision" is substantially a ruse to crowd out significant portions of the NASA budget — the human spaceflight portion, of course, and to some extent also the science — and then present Congress with a massive bill for the exploration stuff that they won't be willing to pay in the name of fiscal rectitude.

As this analysis of contractor proposals for the CEV (the Apollo-like Shuttle follow-on) shows, the first step for this is repeating and even amplifying Apollo-era mistakes. Whether it's a matter of gold-plating, not-invented-here syndrome, or whatever, it's hard to disagree with Stross's assessment that the CEV and its launcher (****) will be behind schedule and massively over-budget.

That's without a dime having been spent on any of the Mars challenges. A lot of the long-lead research budget lines were proposed to be cut to provide Shuttle and CEV funding, despite human needs for air, food, water, gravity, and radiation protection being substantially undiminished. Nor has the administration followed through on its own space-based nuclear propulsion initiative, a gateway technology to some types of large-scale interplanetary missions including advanced robotic missions to the outer solar system (where sunlight is too weak for solar and for which radioisotope thermal generators provide insufficient juice).

The bottom line is that the arbitrary requirement that NASA live within its current budget ensures that hopes for space exploration breakthroughs are probably best pinned on the Allen-Branson-Rutan efforts. In the meanwhile, imagination and little plastic building blocks will get you as far into space as almost anything else.

Cross-posted at Total Drek.


(*) For a quicker dose of the same, try my favorite space strategy game, Spaceward Ho! Ho lacks much of the superficial detail of MOO but fiendishly adds the complexity of requiring management of both renewable and non-renewable resources — not uncoincidentally making it an excellent test of one's ability to put standard economic models of resource extraction to a test.

(**) While you may not think of GE as a space contractor, one of their units built re-entry vehicles for nuclear missile warheads.

(***) Not to make too fine a point of it, the same international partners told to go jump in the North Atlantic over stuff like sending people off to Jeebus-knows-where for torture purposes.

(****) And while an antitrust exemption is pending to allow Boeing and Lockheed Martin to coordinate their space launch businesses in the face of weak demand, the CEV won't be compatible with their partly publicly funded boosters!
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