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Sep 27, 2011

Solution In Search Of A Problem — Nationalism, Environmentalism, and Space’s struggle for cultural relevance.

Posted by in categories: business, futurism, space, sustainability

Space is a hard sell these days. Aside from the persistent small community of die-hard space advocates and New Space entrepreneurs, the relevance of space to the society at large has generally declined since the grand achievements of the Space Race and even such great feats as the building of the ISS have garnered rather modest public attention. In recent years we have had more active astronauts than ever in history, yet few among the general public can name a single one. An appreciation of space science seems to have improved in recent years by virtue of the impressive visuals offered by orbital telescopes, space probes, and rovers. But the general public commitment to space development still dwindles in the face of mounting domestic issues. Most recently we have seen a drastic contraction of national space agencies in response to the current global economic turmoil. Programs are reduced, cut, or under looming threat. We hear pronouncements of deemphasis of costly manned space activity by the major national players in space development. The world leader in space, NASA, now drifts aimlessly, its premier launch system–controversial from the start, often dismissed as a boondoggle, and dragged along for far too long–finally succumbing to obsolescence without a replacement at-hand, leaving the agency dependent upon foreign nations and struggling for a semblance of direction and purpose. In this past few years, finding itself abandoned on both right and left sides of the political fence, it faced the very real possibility of being shut down altogether and now its partner DARPA talks of century-long space programs with no government involvement at all because the very idea of the US government having the coherence to accomplish anything that takes more than one electoral cycle to do has become implausible.

Overconfident to the extreme after recent very significant, yet still modest in the broad perspective, successes, the newest faction of the commercial space community, the New Space entrepreneurs, boast their readiness to pick up the slack, not quite cluing into the fact that the rope isn’t just dropped, it may be cut! Space industry has never been a very big industry despite the seemingly gigantic sticker prices of its hardware. The global space industry accounts for around 160 billion dollars annually. Soft drinks account for 350 billion. Coca Cola is bigger than NASA. Meanwhile, the lion’s share of commercial space service has always been for governments and the remaining largely telecommunications applications –after 50 years still the only proven way to make money in space– face slow decline as latency becomes increasingly critical to mainstream communications. The ‘grand convergence’ long anticipated in computing has now focused on the Internet which is steadily assimilating all forms of mainstream communication and media distribution. Despite a few service providers of last resort, satellites simply don’t work as a host for conventional Internet and physics precludes any solution to that. We owe recent surges in launch service demand more to war than anything else. Ultimately, we’re not looking at a privatization of national space systems. We’re looking at their outright obsolescence and an overall decline in the relevance of space activity of any sort short of science applications, which have no more need of astronauts than for manned submersibles and for the same reasons. The need for space services will not disappear but, as it stands now, has little likelihood of growth either–except on the back of war. Logically, what commercial space desperately needs is a program for the systematic cultivation of new applications the space agencies have never seriously pursued–new ways to make money there, particularly in an industrial context. And what do the mavericks of New Space have on offer in that context? Space tourism for the rich, during a time of global recession…

There is a great misconception today that the challenges of commercial space are merely technological problems waiting to be solved by that one new breakthrough propulsion technology that never materializes. But commercial air travel did not become ubiquitous by virtue of flight technology becoming miraculously cheap and powerful like microprocessors. It became ubiquitous by realizing markets of scale that supported aircraft of enormous size needing very large minimum operation economies of scale, where populations of millions in communities with well-heeled comfortable middle-classes are necessary to generate sufficient traffic to justify the existence of a single airport. A single A380 airliner costs almost as much as the development of a typical unmanned launch system. Air travel was never particularly successful in an industrial sense. Most stuff still moves around the world at the 20mph speed of ships. The New Deal and the remnant air support infrastructure of WWII were together probably more responsible for the modern airline industry than any engine or aircraft design–because they created the market. If it takes a population of millions to justify the existence of a single conventional airport for conventional airliners, what then a Pan-Am Orion?

For those who look to space as an insurance policy for life and the human civilization, this situation should be of much concern. Whether it be for averting the potential disasters of asteroid strikes or as a redoubt for some fraction of civilization in the event of any terrestrial disaster, a vast space-based infrastructure must be continually at-hand for such capability. Yet these kinds of threats do not themselves seem to have ever inspired sufficient concern in the general public or political leaders to demand such capability be established and maintained for its own sake. You cannot talk in public about such space contingencies and be taken remotely seriously. One could say we have been a bit too lucky as a civilization. There have been no small asteroid impacts in historic memory and few global existentially threatening events beyond those we human beings have created –and we’re very good at systematic denial of those. So this contingency capability relies on being incidental to other space development. That development has been inadequate for that to date, counting on future expansion that has never materialized. What then as we watch that development fizzle-out altogether? The essential cultural relevance of space development can be seen as crucial to the long-term survival of our species, and that’s in marked decline.

What happened to space? Just a generation ago this seemed to be a significant concern for the global society. Wherever you were in the world, whatever your station in life, space mattered in some way, even when the majority of activity was being pursed by just two conflicting superpower governments. In those two nations, a sense of vicarious participation in the space programs through the general contribution to national productivity spread across the society. We were all part of the space program and we all largely defined our future as a civilization–when we weren’t so scared witless as to doubt there was any–in the partial context of space development. When and why did this stop mattering to us? Can we make it matter again?

The Blessing and The Curse:

Space development owes a lot to Nikita Khrushchev. If any one man can be said to be largely responsible for the Space Age it was him–whatever we might think of his overall historic legacy. Wernher von Braun is largely responsible for the vision of space development that captivated the world at the time and, in partnership with Walt Disney, spread like a meme through the contemporary popular culture where it was echoed in countless ways in a diversity of popular media. They are why the US wound up with a civilian space program and not a ‘space force’, von Braun understanding that a strategic military imperative alone could never get us beyond Earth orbit. The movement for this civilian space program was well underway at the time and the Space Race a timely opportunity for it. But Khrushchev largely instigated the Space Race as we’ve come to understand it, set ad hoc the ground rules for the competition superpowers would engage in, and created the model of space agency process for development both major players would employ, even if supported by different infrastructures. Most importantly, he established the pursuit of specific space goals not as an extension of the arms race, as implied in the impact of Sputnik, but as a nationalist competition for geopolitical prestige through technical and industrial prowess. It was a peaceful, less dangerous, alternative to the arms race, even if the ultimate implication of this prowess in space was one of potential military might on Earth. It was a reinvention of the medieval tournament on a vastly more grand scale. And this is why, in seemingly such a short amount of time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, US and Russian space agencies could so readily become partners. There was never an animosity between these space programs and agencies, despite the bitter cultural animosity cultivated in mainstream society by Cold War propaganda. It was an attitude akin to olympic athletes.

Thus competitive nationalism proved a powerful force for driving space development. But it was ultimately an unsustainable one. At some point someone ‘won’. One could argue that the Space Race did not end with the US manned landing on the Moon but rather with the failures of the beautiful yet doomed Soviet N1 rocket. One might even say the Soviets lost the Space Race with the ouster of Khrushchev and the reestablishment of a more conservative Soviet internal order that likely contributed to the N1 failure. Apollo was doomed to a premature suspension even as the first astronauts set foot on the Moon, because without a competitor the nationalist imperative for space could not be sustained. As soon as this particular competition was over, the propaganda machine was directed elsewhere–inward against an eruption of civil unrest across the western world prompted by protracted poorly-rationalized wars, repeated political disillusionment, the subtle mass psychological effect of perpetual existential threat under the Cold War, race, class, and generational conflict, energy crisis, and the increasingly blatant excesses of corporate culture. To a certain degree, the Space Race itself had contributed to this by virtue of the change of social perspectives access to space had produced. We, for the first time as a whole global society, had seen the Earth as a whole and sensed our rather precarious position in the larger universe. This was a powerful thing. Culturally, we began to think of the world as a whole, of its systems as a whole, its resources finite and ourselves as planetary rather than state citizens. This, in particular, catalyzed a new popular international environmentalist movement of far greater scope than the conversation movements of the early 20th century.

At this time in history nationalism itself was dying in the western culture. The society now had a global, cosmopolitan, perspective. The basic belief of the public in the generally good intentions of government was lost–and remains lost. Almost no one in the world today, regardless of political alignment, now seriously believes their government has their best interests in mind, this attitude continually reinforced by scandal, war, and blatant expressions of authoritarianism and institutional violence continuing unabated to the present day. In the US nationalism was co-opted by extremist political conservatives, and thus discredited in the popular culture as a cynical tool of propaganda. (and both political parties bear equal share of the blame for that) Consequently, most everything that once served as a symbol of nationalist pride and identity in the past has become, to some degree, tainted, silly, childish, anachronistic in the manner of the weird aesthetic of a North Korean propaganda poster. And one of those symbols is the space program which, with the government abandonment of Apollo and the general public abandonment of the hopeful future envisioned by von Braun, lost its public mandate. Without that mandate NASA, in order to survive, was compelled to transform into just another state bureaucracy, ruled by the logic of a eunuch in the ancient Chinese imperial court and compelled to pander simultaneously to the absurd vanities of opposing political parties. Its programs since Apollo all reflect this kind of logic, which is why the general public often has a hard time comprehending their purpose and relevance and why they are such easy targets for accusations of folly and boondoggle. The public doesn’t understand the court games that must be played here–the very different kind of logic underlying the design of a Space Shuttle or ISS. It doesn’t have a lot to do with space. The public and the government have very different priorities for space summed up in the simple observation that while the public has always understood space as a place we intended to ultimately to go and live, government is not in the business of inventing new places for people to go and not pay taxes. Any commitment for space ever claimed by government has always been fundamentally disingenuous–a cover for another agenda that probably has nothing to do with space itself. Space agencies are stuck in the middle, at once trying to pay lip service to The Dream while ultimately beholden to the system that actually writes the checques.

This is how we have arrived at the sorry situation we find ourselves in with space development today and in order to overcome this we must seek a new basis for a mass cultural relevance to space. We must understand that the objectives we seek in space, in particular the objectives of space settlement and the establishment of the infrastructure we need to support those space-based contingencies for existential threats, cannot be rationalized entirely under the narcissistic imperatives of governments, strategic military imperatives, or the extremely narrow weltanschauung of commercial interests. This has to matter to us as a society in a very basic way. The imperative for space should be as fundamental to us as the imperative to reproduce, build careers, and build a better life. Only with such fundamental importance can space development achieve the necessary social and economic focus it needs to truly carry us to a spacefaring civilization. But on what basis this new relevance?

Six Degrees of Separation:

There is one very powerful aspect of space development that potentially links it very directly to the concerns everyday terrestrial life; the pursuit of the means to live in space essentially means the development of technology to sustainably go from dirt, rocks, and sunlight to a middle-class standard of living using systems on the scale of home appliances. What aspect of life on Earth would such capability NOT impact?

Today, the relevance of space activity is defined largely in terms of the social and economic dividends of ‘technology transfer’ characterized like a game of Six Degrees of Separation where agencies basically try to confabulate credit for every historic technical achievement short of fire and the wheel. No one really buys this anymore. Most certainly space development and science have made very great achievements but these become diluted in perceived social value when simultaneously associated with nebulous claims of connections so tenuous that even James Burke would be hard pressed to see them. The links between space activity and everyday life cannot be taken seriously when so tenuous. They must be seen as direct, immediate, and concrete.

One great opportunity for contemporary cultural relevance long overlooked by space agencies and companies alike is environmentalism. As noted earlier, our public exposure to a space perspective is one of the key factors in the creation of the environmental movement that we have today. Space science is largely responsible for our understanding of the global impact of pollution and the current understanding of Global Warming. Yet, right now, environmentalism sees space activity as nothing but pointless folly providing welfare to the military industrial complex. (even if, in reality, its fraction of contribution to the established aerospace industry would be lucky to be considered marginal) Why this disconnect? Part of this relates to environmentalism’s generally uneasy relationship to science, it’s roots in 19th century Romanticism and its fundamental opposition to Enlightenment philosophy seen as the root cause of the social and environment degradation inherent to the Industrial Revolution. Contemporary environmentalism is very willing to partner with science and exploit, for sake of its own public credibility, various science personalities where that suits its agenda. It will make heroes out of people like James Lovelock, and Jacque Cousteau. But it is just as willing to abandon science on grounds of its association with commercial technology and–getting back to those old roots–its reductionist perspectives. In their extremist factions, environmentalists today are just as anti-science as right-wing Christian fundamentalists and as doggedly Malthusianist as corporate Objectivists. But perhaps the most important reason for this disconnect is the underlying curse of the Space Age’s origins in nationalism and the relationship of space agencies to fundamentally discredited government, militaries, and the corporate military industrial complex environmentalists see as one of the greatest evils in the world today.

But this is not a perception the space agencies could not have overcome had they pursued a greater, more concerted, alignment to the pursuit of environmental science and renewable energy technology which, of necessity, it has pursued for its own in-space uses. Who understands more about renewable energy than NASA? Who has done as much research? Who else has put it to such cutting edge use? Do we not fuel rockets with hydrogen and power space stations with solar panels? These things could have been catalysts of national renewable energy infrastructure development. Yet NASA was a latecomer in the concerted practical use of solar and wind power–beaten to it by none other than the US military!–and the deployment of LEED certified facilities when it probably could have been the original authors of that LEED criteria.

Perhaps the reason for this missed opportunity is that space agencies are ultimately creatures of politics and one of the great problems we face today across the developed nations is the irrational politicization of energy technology. Through systematic political corruption by vested interests, the choice of energy technology has became a matter of political ideology. This is patently absurd. It’s like an arbitrary religious taboo against certain foods in the midst of a famine. And because space agencies are compelled to pander to the vanities of political parties, it simply never had the option to employ and promote technologies that became characterized as politically controversial. The blunder here has been in not recognizing that a public mandate is far more important to space agencies than mutual support from self-interested political leaders. With that mandate, the flow of influence is reversed and the government compelled to follow their lead. Administrators have become too comfortable playing the game by politics’ rules.

Oddly enough, space agencies have at times tried–half-heartedly and thus futilely–to promote renewable energy in a space industry context in the form of the Space Solar Power that was of much interest in the late 1970s and has seen some revival in recent years. Space Solar Power was the key rationalization for the concept of large orbital space colonies that emerged from the legendary ’77 Summer Study and epitomized in books such as Girard O’Neill’s High Frontier. The space colony was the home to the orbital workforce that would produce this vast space solar power infrastructure from lunar-sourced materials. This was a vision that briefly enjoyed popular interest world-wide–to the point where it actually became the subject of theme park attractions like Disney’s Horizons–and which space agencies totally failed to capitalize on as they continued to transform from space programs into space bureaucracies.

Emerging at the height of the ‘70s Energy Crisis, the concept of space solar power should have put space squarely into the middle of mainstream cultural concerns were it not for the problem of government politicization of energy and, even more peculiar, environmentalism’s very negative response to the concept persisting to this day. There are many open technical questions about the viability of Space Solar Power. This author is himself quite skeptical of it based on the question of power delivery beam density and rectenna area and the practical cost-performance comparison to terrestrial solar power. There is, to date, a lot of hand-waving. But this is not why environmentalism was so cold to this concept. It rejected it because the basic idea of a super-power nation and its corporate military industrial complex deploying a gigantic concentrated energy infrastructure perpetuates a model of energy economy hegemony that environmentalism’s embrace of renewables was intended to stand against. In other words, environmentalists are generally only interested in alternative energy technology that can be deployed in small scales–put on the roof of your off-grid cabin in the wilderness as a symbol of grass-roots protest against corporate fossil fuel hegemony. The problem, as environmentalism perceives it, is not just that fossil fuels pollute but that the concentrated economic power created by concentrated energy production hegemonies is a key cause of class exploitation and a root source of the inherent unsustainability in our entire industrial infrastructure. This sort of grass-roots independent energy protest was originally a necessity with wind and solar because of the refusal of industry to seriously pursue renewables development at any significant scale, forcing proponents to small independent deployment and technology demonstration and a bottom-up cultivation of demand for the technology, though the down-side of this is that it further reinforces the politicization of energy technology. For this same reason environmentalism has ignored or lambasted many other promising renewable energy technologies that happen to have large minimum economies of scale, such as OTEC. This is an issue many current proponents of Space Solar Power in the space advocacy community still fail to comprehend.

Had we put this in a different context, the outcome might have been much different. There has long been an opportunity here to frame space development in the context of a general and direct improvement of terrestrial life. An option to say–and demonstrate–that the pursuit of sustained habitation in space is simultaneously the pursuit of a better, more sustainable, life on Earth, the fulcrum of that proposition being the nature of the technologies we must develop and employ in order to live in space. Technologies the public has never been presented with much illustration/demonstration of. The lifestyle of the inhabitant of space is the most ‘green’ lifestyle one might imagine because the essential process of space habitation revolves around the cultivation of garden habitats of various kinds, life support systems that mimic the cycles of the terrestrial biome, renewable energy systems at many scales, and sophisticated miniaturized industrial technology that, deployed on Earth, would promote industrial–and incidentally economic–demassification. Space development IS a progressive movement!

This is also very important in a commercial context because it is just as critically necessary to relate commercial space activity to things that matter to the public as that is for government space activity. In fact, even more so in the sense that, in order for commercial space to be viable, it must produce products and services that relate to the needs and desires of a mainstream public. There isn’t much money to be made at the top of the pyramid. There is more money in CocaCola than in champagne. This is why a systematic pursuit of new space applications is very critical to any potential growth in commercial space–and right now that doesn’t exist.

This author is going to go out on a limb with a very controversial observation; one of the key hindrances to future economic growth in the New Space community is it’s inability to culturally align to the interest of the public and actually function as a community. It is making exactly the same mistake national space agencies have been making for decades. This at least partly relates to its association with extremist Libertarianism, a preponderance of Global Warming deniers, an indifference to environmental and social concerns, and most importantly, an inability to systematically pursue new market-relevant space applications as a cooperative community with coherent shared objectives. This is not just a matter of politics and philosophy. This is a matter of the bottom-line economic potential for the industry. The ability of the industry to realize growth and value. It’s ability to make money. If you can’t relate to the mainstream society, you don’t matter.

Right now commercial space desperately needs the kind of cross-industry coherence and cooperation that typified the computer industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Just like the computer, our goals in space are too complicated and technically challenging. No one company can do all we need to do in space any more than one company was capable of realizing the personal computer as we know it today. There are not enough ways to make money in space, either existing or proposed. The cooperative addressing of that issue should be the number one concern of commercial space developers. And, again, the concept of space habitation as a general goal is a potential catalyst for this focus. It reduces space activity to a specific logistical context, a specific spectrum of industrial capabilities, which can result in the identification and realization of specific products and services for the terrestrial market. It’s not all about how we get out there. It’s not about CATS. As long as there is no such thing as a generic launch capability, CATS only has any meaning in the context of specific applications. Pursuing launch capability in the absence of application development is nonsense. What ultimately matters is WHY we go out there. That’s what defines the market. We don’t have enough answers to that question.

Making it Matter:

Lets reiterate a key point; the pursuit of the means to live in space essentially means the development of technology to sustainably go from dirt, rocks, and sunlight to a middle-class standard of living using systems on the scale of home appliances. If we understand the full ramifications of this statement we see a great potential at-hand for the re-establishment of a sustainable cultural relevance for space. With this concept we can make space matter as it has never mattered to the global society before, in a very direct way that impacts every person’s life and the future of life on Earth in general. As pointed out, what would such capability not impact? What would it not improve? The public has always understood space as a place we intend to go and live. It’s space agencies’ and space industry’s inability to make sense of, and relate to, that understanding that has been its undoing. It’s not the public that’s been distracted. It’s the space community.

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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • giorgio gaviraghi on September 27, 2011 1:48 pm

    Space Development
    The depressed status of space development is basically due to a great misunderstanding by the general public.
    Space was promoted as a cold war duel, it attracted public attention all over the world, and every space feat was hailed as an important and global achievement.
    After Apollo, the US won the game, there was no more money, from both parts, nor goals , to continue the expensive activity and both parts decided to reduce the effort.
    Now , forty years later , we are still at the same level of technology. We are even going backwards , proposing again disposable rocket systems with sea rescue for the astronauts, putting aside the entire shuttle experience, instead of restarting from there and propose a much more advanced system.
    But all this are negative and pessimistic considerations. Let’s look forward with PMA (positive mental attitude).
    Why space is neglected by the entrepreneur and new generation community that prefer information and communication technologies for their investments?
    There are many answers to that, but the most relevant is:
    –Because space is not profitable
    –because space technology is obsolete and don’t allow order of magnitudes costs reductions
    –because there are no immediate and available goals to excite the fantasy and the interest of the public opinion
    –finally, because space don’t sell
    These are the most common answers.
    But let’s look at it in a different way.
    Space is an endless gold mine for whoever will have the courage , the intelligence and the willingness to pursue its development.
    A relatively limited investment , (when we consider that for a flat panel plant we invest over 10B$) will allow to make operational a cruiser-feeder. wholly reusable transportation system connecting our planet with the moon and mars.
    Such system, by retrieving and utilizing small asteroids, can transform itself in a space –based spaceport and a profit generating community. (selling transportation to pax and cargo to the Moon and Mars), space manufactured fuel to rocket launchers and many other activities..
    Settlements can be created in both bodies , spurring new technologies and ultimately new economies.
    Fuel for rockets can be manufactured in space, minerals can be transformed and utilize as well. Helium 3 can be collected on the Moon and sent to earth, solar satellites can power the earth as well as other bodies.
    The Moon can be Terraformed and is close by, immense riches would be available, claims can be distributed and pioneers can start getting there and build an economy.
    How can we Terraform the Moon? No atmosphere, radiations, extreme temperatures?
    Very easily and far less expensive as the Mars proposal where you have to act on an entire planet (yes it has atmosphere , a climate etc).
    By building underground
    Small habitat cells , of modular design, can be built underground, with built in protection against the above ground hostile environment, including deadly radiations, in a step by step plan The habitat cells can expand , transform in cities and be connected between them forming a new world.
    The construction activity, being mostly based on excavating, can have as a side benefit , the minerals exploitation creating wealth for the population.
    Such underground technology can be utilized in most hostile bodies of the solar system and allow a shirtsleeve and safe environment for humans.
    A affordable, rich new world , and in this case also new frontier, can encourage average people to go, like during the Old West times.
    This is a just an example, space –based activities can expand , form a new economy. With affordable transportation claims can be distributed and the Moon first, other bodies later, can be “Terraformed” without revolutions and extreme costs and centuries of hard work.
    This can be immediate available, we only need a visionary entrepreneur, that realize that space development can offer much more that a few new gadgets and really transform our lives and our history.

  • flashgordon on September 27, 2011 2:28 pm

    As of paragraph two, the main concerns are problems of getting to space whether govenment or commercial/private.

    The Issue is money. Trying to sell space colonization and exploration/expansion to the public has always been a problem because your asking them(both government and non-science public) to fund a minority(scientists are a minority in this high tech age!) to go storming the heavens!

    What’s more, these very same people are struggling to understand how to make an economy working! The answer is obvious from perhaps a radical scientists perspective; science and technology(hence space; although, nanotech calls into question space expansion as the only solution to humanities woes) is how you generate wealth! Look, you want to make jobs? Make new science and technologies! Since we’ll never know the whole truth, there’s always room for some new scientific and technological discovery! Space also fits in nicely with this arguement!

    You have a long post; i’ll hope to read it soon enough and comment soon enough!

  • Scott Brown on September 27, 2011 3:36 pm

    The reason that it isn’t happening is simply that “We the People” are not doing it. It is up to the people to step up and take on the task of both being sustainable as if we were developing a space colony on Planet Earth, but also building space ships for the colonization of space and planets.
    The two go hand in hand.
    We must develop a community that is fully sustainable, build it, live in it and experiment with the process while simultaneously building space ships that do a whole lot more than what Sir Fancy Pants is proposing.
    I get it, I just don’t like it.
    Once again, we are waiting and boot-licking in the process to just go do what needs to be done.
    Spaceport America is where we need to gather.
    We need to work together, collaborate, share, take care of one another, love one another and go to the stars.
    Spaceport America is ready for the people to appear and go to work.
    Karen and I are already here and waiting.

  • Keith J. Dauzat on September 27, 2011 3:58 pm

    Well done sir. This was a timely and thought provoking piece.

  • JohnHunt on September 27, 2011 8:40 pm

    I perceive that this article is largely a counter to my article two articles back.

    I found your article well thought out and well supported. Although, I too didn’t make it all the way through before deciding to post, I too promise to read it completely when I have time & post another response.

    As far as I got, I found your arguments to largely be accurate. Certainly space is a hard sell in this Age of Austerity. You might well be right about the decline even in the communications part of space. Space exploration for science does not need humans — others don’t but I agree with you. I also agree with you that the public doesn’t value (or much think about) the need to establish an off-Earth colony as an insurance policy. Also, NASA is drifting right now. And I could go on.

    However, I am not prepared to accept your conclusion for a number of specific reasons.

    For the sake of discussion, I am going to use SpaceX as THE example of New Space, but there are others. First of all, SpaceX has shown that there is a path, a never before tried path, which is proving to be far most cost-effective. Just this week, there have been two SpaceX-related news items which demonstrates this:
    1) The NASA Associate Deputy Administrator for Policy did a NAFCOM study showing that SpaceX developed the Falcon 9 at about 1/3 of the cost had NASA procured it in the way that it has done it in the past.
    2) SpaceX just applied to the FAA to develop a Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing rocket. At the NASA Spaceflight Forum they are concluding that this is SpaceX planning on working on reusability of the first stage.

    So, Eric, you can’t just look at NASA’s failings of the past, the decreasing overall budget, and maybe a decline in the launch market. To be fair, you must also look at trends which have a reasonable chance at creating a new situation.

    So, I see in 10–20 year time frame, human space flight (HSF) becoming a whole lot cheaper than the Shuttle. And, if SpaceX masters reusability (it sure looks like they are going to make an attempt at it), then those prices might drop much further. When this happens, it is going to be a completely new situation and the US would be stupid not to recognize how we could continue our HSF program on the cheap.

    Also, it is true that, after the Apollo program, the American people have not valued HSF that much. But, that fact didn’t translate into budget reality that much. For example, the budget remained high enough for all of those Space Shuttle flights by those unknown astronauts so that the ISS could be completed. I believe that our nation is committed to continuing HSF at least until the ISS is deorbited and I believe that the US will continue HSF if for no other reason than to fight against any national decline.

    So, I see things playing themselves out as I laid out in my previous article. The SLS may well die (I certainly hope so). Either way, with time, it will become obvious that the New Space companies can deliver far more bang for the buck than how we’ve been doing it before. So, after they master HSF to the ISS (in a few short years), the obvious thing to wonder is if that same approach can take us beyond Earth orbit. But, for a cheap (e.g. no SLS) and sustainable first step, the Moon is the logical next destination and for economic sustainability, that means harvesting lunar ice. There is no other path to anywhere that makes more logical, natural sense. After multiple landers prove their safety, and after teleoperations turn lunar ice into water and O2, humans can follow. At that point, I argue that long duration stays already puts us close enough to self-sufficiency that it would be an easy well to say, “Hey, since we’re already this close, why not go for full self-sufficiency…just in case.”

    But, one important point, is that we (e.g. the Lifeboat Foundation) can make a difference as to whether this vision is realized. There needs to be a lot of work put into figuring out:
    — the least expensive yet safe way of telerobotically preparing for the first astronauts back to the Moon and
    — how go from just life support from lunar ice, to full self-sufficiency.
    There are experts who can figure this out and indeed there has been some good work along these lines. But more needs to be done and there needs to be an organized advocacy of such a plan.

  • Ray Wright on September 28, 2011 2:26 am

    I’m fully in agreement with Eric’s post, and also with Flash Gordon’s about money. It is indeed about money. The insane cost of current space access, even with the likes of Falcon-9, etc, means that space colonisation is impossibly expensive now and it may even get worse, as the environmental costs of an expanding population and decreasing natural resources, as they are consumed at an ever-increasing rate, put up the costs of everything. The cost of space access underlies everything we want to do and that has to come down. The only way it can come down is to go to completely-reusable launch systems. I and my collaborators have just such a system in mind but we need financial backers.

  • John Wheeler on September 30, 2011 10:54 pm

    The cost of sending stuff into space can easily be reduced by several orders of magnitude by using what are essentially massive cannons. The problem is that the stuff can’t be squishy like people or complicated satellites that can’t withstand hundreds of Gs. This means that the people to make the stuff into things need to be in orbit (at least telerobotically).

  • Dmitri Donskoy on October 2, 2011 4:59 pm

    Fantastic discussion Eric! As usual, you have provided an excellent break down of the obstacles we face as a planetary species on the verge of climbing out of our planetary cradle.

    Humanity is mature enough now to organize around our technological global consciousness. The Internet allows us to organize on a global scale to push all of humanity forward into Post Industrial Society. One burgeoning organization working towards this space faring future is called the Living Universe Foundation. Their work can be found online at http://www.luf.org.

  • Fred Becker on October 15, 2011 11:03 am

    This is an interesting discussion and I hope you reach a good conclusion from it. I would like to just share a very similar discussion that I see happening over on Rand Simberg’s blog. He talks about settlement as the goal for space.

    http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/it%E2%80%99s-the-space-developm.….epage=true

    Jeff Greason of XCor also spoke about this earlier this year at ISDC.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wy2kIPLsUn0