How we’ll get back to the moon

From what I can tell reading this NASA page, the answer is: pretty much how we got there in the first place. Which is either clever and efficient re-use of existing technology… or wildly underwhelming, depending on your point of view. What I find alarming, however, is how easy it is to find things to be snide about. A bit of a manned spaceflight rant from me, after the fold:

“Building on the best of Apollo and shuttle technology, NASA’s creating a 21st century exploration system that will be affordable, reliable, versatile, and safe.”

So, they’re starting from technologies that are, respectively, forty and thirty years old? OK…

“Astronauts will launch on a rocket made up of a super-sized shuttle solid rocket booster, with a second stage powered by a J-2X engine, like the ones used on the Apollo Saturn V rockets.”

Wow, they’re actually serious about re-using forty year-old technology. Uh… are those old Saturn engines really the best option? Or are they just something NASA has to hand, without having to lose face by going to ESA or the Russians?

(note, however, that we’re talking big engines here – both these rockets are on a similar scale to Saturn V. Breaking low-Earth orbit with a useful payload is a tremendous job. Also, I really am being simplistically snide – as Wikipedia points out, the J-2X engine is air-startable, which is unusual for a proven design of that sort of power.)

“These launch systems are 10 times safer than the shuttle because of an escape rocket on top of the capsule that can quickly blast the crew away if launch problems develop. There’s also little chance of damage from launch vehicle debris, since the capsule sits on top of the rocket.”

According to Wikipedia, there have been 114 Shuttle flights. As we all know, there have been two major accidents, both leading to the deaths of the crews. Wikipedia quotes this as a 2% death rate per astronaut per flight: that is, if you fly on the shuttle, you carry a 1-in-50 chance of death. That’s quite high.

Ten times better, 1-in-500, is still high. It’s not clear how many Constellation flights are planned, but six supply flights a year to the ISS are mentioned. If we assume a thirty-year programme (same as the Shuttle), and moonshots in addition to the ISS flights, this implies that NASA are already projecting one vehicle-loss type accident, or equivalent.

Personally, I’d rather they came clean about this. People died on Apollo; people died on the Shuttle. The mistake wasn’t in the risks they took, it was in pretending that the risk was minor. It wasn’t. They were brave people, for space flight is not a trivial endeavour. We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, indeed.

“In just five years, the new ship will begin to ferry crew and supplies to the International Space Station.”

…assuming they haven’t had to abandon the ISS because Shuttle is deemed unsafe to fly, that is.

See, what worries me is this: a week ago, we had reports that NASA managers had declared the Shuttle safe to fly, despite disagreement from their own Chief Safety Officer and Chief Engineer. That’s… bizarre, and tends to lend credence to the view that we explore space first-hand for political, not scientific, reasons.

Because in the end, there’s only one question worth asking about manned space flight: “why now?

It used to be that a large part of the answer to that was about capturing imagination, pulling people together and giving them a clear goal. It was about selling a dream. And you know, for a while there, it kinda worked. The Apollo programme demonstrated US industrial might not just to the Soviets (whom it arguably helped bankrupt), but to the American people themselves. The Space Shuttle captured the world’s imagination. It didn’t simply feel modern, it felt like the future, come early – that dangled promise of making space flight routine, oh wow!

The Constellation probe and returning to the moon? Meh, whatever.

But if that’s the general response – really, why bother?


  1. For the most part, yes, NASA’s new architecture is a bit underwhelming. But if that were the entirety of space exploration then you’re conclusions would be dead on. They aren’t, though. Take the conclusion about servicing ISS for example, sometime in the next five years the ISS will be serviced by neither the shuttle nor the CEV but by a couple of private companies doing it for a profit. The COTS program is a fixed price contract under NASA’s “other contract authority” for paying companies just for the service of sending stuff to the ISS.

    The point is that your article is about how “we” will get back to the moon, but throughout the entire thing you’re only asking how NASA will get back to the moon. We are more than likely to get back to the moon using profit as the motive, not “political, not scientific, reasons”. This has gotten lost since the president’s speach but the reason to go is not political or scientific. Its economic. Countries that explore for economic reasons reap the rewards of resources and discoveries and the general ‘dynamism’ of it.

    There is an entire space program out there that is building vehicles and missions without NASA’s involvement. The reason they’re doing it is fun and profit. Science and politics come last. Check ’em out:

  2. That’s a better-reasoned riposte than my largely nonsensical stream-of-conscious blether likely deserves!
    My instinct is to voice skepticism — even cynicism — that space is really amenable to private industry. But that’s partly because I’m British, and it’s easy for me to get stuck in the mindset of thinking laterally rather than thinking big.
    What I find interesting is that I have this week been directly involved in a prime example of a large, established, well-respected organisation being out-thought by a small, fleet-foot, cocky upstart. The two organisations are doing superficially similar projects, and while the upstart’s is unlikely to have quite the same sort of impact, it’s looking distinctly more cost-effective by being more focussed, and more clearly thought through.
    To deny that such a thing should be possible with NASA vs ‘the little guys’ would be hypocritical in the extreme. Indeed, NASA is such a monstrously vast organisation, it’s something of a miracle that it functions at all (but hey, I consider the British Civil Service one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World).
    I still find it hard to believe that there’s great commercial value in space beyond comms/nav/earth obs satellites and basic tourism, but I guess I have to admit the possibility that this is a limitation of my own imagination, and not a feature of the world itself. And you’re absolutely right, I do find what Rutan and others are doing exciting. Indeed, Rutan is one of the reasons I nearly took an astronautics degree, all those years ago.
    Yes, private space flight might well recapture that spirit of possibility that so charmed me about the Shuttle when I was young. I hope so. I’m not convinced, but perhaps hope is more potent than cynicism.

  3. Space at current launch prices isn’t very amenable to private industry other than very high ticket aggregate markets such as comsats. The key assumption that many of us in the industry are working on is that, if you can somehow start off suborbitally AND build a business with a high flight rate, that you will lower launch costs through operational savings. I.e. if you only flew a Boeing 747 once a year you would only have a handful of them and they’d cost many billions of dollars to fly.

    That’s why so many of us are fixated on suborbital tourism: there are lots of small payloads that have money. You can build a profitable business flying them once or twice a week. That flight rate drives down costs dramatically due to economies of scale and extensive flight experience with the hardware.

    Then, once the costs come down, other more futuristic businesses begin to become viable: lunar flyby tourism, orbital fuel depots, comsat rescue tugs, private space stations for tourists and scientists, etc. None of those can be profitable at current launch prices. But drop them by one order of magnitude and they all become profitable businesses.

    Take us for example: we can take a 350 gram, soda can sized payload into space and back for only $129. Its only suborbital but we will reach 400 km sometime in 2008. We can fly that mission about 4 to 6 times a day. Its cheap and reliable, but functionally its not as good as putting hundreds of pounds of mass on the ISS. But for a lot of people its good enough to start. So we get experience flying and we get our operations down to a fine science. That makes it a lot easier to build a human capable tourism vehicle in ’09 and then an orbital one in ’11. All at much lower costs and much higher reliability.

  4. Hmm, ‘soda can’, eh? I wonder what the Cola and Mentos experiment would be like in zero G…

  5. Damned hard to film, Kevin. But I like the way you think.

  6. Kevin,
    Put a nozzle on it and we’ll use it for our Reaction Control System. 😉

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