Friday, September 01, 2006

If Wishes Were Space Ponies...

by Tom Bozzo

Via Kevin Drum, here's a corker of a speech by Bush science adviser John Marburger. As a background matter, Marburger's Real Scientist credentials are quite a bit stronger than NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's (i.e., no prior history of employment in areas that are or look like Republican pet projects). Yet a cursory review of some of Marburger's justifications for the Bush Moon project left Drum saying:
Question: what happens to people who are hired into the Bush administration? Do they just shrug their shoulders and agree to spout crazy stuff because that's the price of working in the White House? Does Cheney have some kind of diabolical mind ray that actually makes them believe this stuff? Or what?

In this case, the trigger is a claim that the Moon mission can be economically justified by lunar manufacture of oxidizer for the Mars mission and by "Earth-oriented markets" for other industrial activities on the Moon. For obvious reasons, the "Earth-oriented markets" for lunar-sourced oxygen are very limited. My understanding is that the amount of energy it takes to ship stuff from the surface of the Moon to Earth orbit or Earth-Moon Lagrange points vs. from the surface of the Earth makes the idea not totally crazy — commercial satellites might, in theory, be refueled on orbit, as Marburger suggests.

However, even the Bush "vision"'s minimal Moon landing scenario is mostly unfunded as it is. The Marginal Utility wager remains that the underlying purpose is to get a future Congress to choke on the price tag.

Some amount of money with at least ten (and probably a non-minimal eleven) figures to the left of the decimal place would be needed to develop the machine(s) to mine the lunar regolith, extract the oxygen, and package it for transport; not to mention a cargo vehicle and — if the aforementioned machines aren't autonomous — a moonbase. So it's not like we can exactly fire off a rocket and voilà, lunar economy.

(Never mind for now that using chemical propellant for a human mission to Mars is problematic just about however you cut it, and the Administration killed off its own space-based nuclear power program.)

Now, you can't have industry without power, and here's Marburger's wave of the magic wand on that point:
Clever ideas have been advanced for the phased construction of electrical power sources – perhaps using solar cells manufactured in situ from Lunar soil.
So a orerequisite for the grand industrial development of the moon is development (from scratch) and shipment to the moon of machine(s) that mine lunar soil, refine it to obtain materials for the manufacture of photovoltaic cells, get rid of the waste, and economically fabricate the cells (and industrial-strength solar arrays) so that oxidizer manufactured with the resulting electricity can be economically shipped back to Earth orbit. This just might require some government subsidy. I'll grant that the technical challenge here is finite, but you might think that making photovoltaic cells of terrestrial origin far less expensive — a hundred million solar roofs, anyone? — would be a higher-valued direction for the effort. (Silly me, for some reason I keep forgetting about 'clean coal.')

This leads to Marburger's major understatement:
It should be obvious from these remarks that I believe the vision President Bush set forth on January 14, 2004 is not one for a few decades, but for a much longer period of space development.
No kidding. As I've suggested before, Republican spacers who are packed for a trip to Mars under the assumption that the Bush space exploration vision is getting anyone anywhere in finite time are setting themselves up for a crushing disappointment. Even those somewhat better-off conservatarian spacers with the wherewithal to reserve a seat on Virgin Galactic shouldn't be thinking too big about the "Galactic" bit. Particularly hard-hit by the Bush vision is basic research into space-based power and propulsion systems (q.q.v.) and life-support systems that Burt Rutan might then cleverly and economically package for commercial use.

But if there's pixie dust in the direction Marburger sees for space exploration, it's this reasonable-sounding passage that's perhaps most deserving of Drum's disdain:
That is why the vision emphasizes the need to "Implement a sustained and affordable human and robotic program to explore the solar system and beyond." To be sustainable the space exploration budget must grow at the same rate as the domestic discretionary budget. To be affordable its fraction of that budget must be small enough to be stable against competition from other parts of the budget, and in particular those that are perceived to serve a wider variety of societal needs. And yet it must be large enough to carry the project forward and sustain the necessary community of technical people. I know there are concerns that space science may suffer by competition with the perpetually expanding space exploration theme. But science is one of those primary objectives that space exploration is supposed to accomplish and it has much popular support. I believe that in the long run space science funding will remain at levels strong enough to support a healthy program.
The only thing missing here is Marburger's wish for the herd of Moon ponies. Behind this statement is the usual 2-1=4 Bush fiscal arithmetic. It's just impossible to squeeze current human spaceflight operations, a solid space science program, reasonable amounts of basic aerospace research, and the Bush space vision into the current NASA budget. Stuff not only will have to give but in fact already has.

And it's the denial of the bleeding obvious — which obviously extends to far more critical matters of freedom and national security — that's the Cheney mind ray at work.
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