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Location: St. Louis, Missouri, United States

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Star Gazers and Navel Gazers

There was an article in the American Thinker yesterday by Paul Shlichta,an occasional technical advisor to NASA, in which he argues that the Space Agency is adrift and in need of a new purpose. He makes several suggestions on how to reinvigorate the space program, and if NASA follows his advise they will be defunct in five years.

I agree; NASA IS seriously adrift. There are several reasons for this; after the spectacular success of the Moon landings, NASA was expected to pursue sweeping programs. During the `70`s NASA put up Skylab, and then developed the Shuttle, whose primary purpose was to build things. The whole point of the Shuttle (everyone keeps asking why it was designed so large) was to build several space stations in higher orbits to be used as way-stations to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere. The original idea was to have large, permanently manned, stations with gravity (via rotation) and everything the space traveler would need. Once these stations were in place, we were supposed to build permanent settlements on the Moon which would supply raw materials, oxygen, and perhaps even manufactured goods. (Moving material off of the Moon is a lot easier than it is launching it from Earth.) These stations were intended to act as launch platforms for voyages to Mars, Jupiter, and all points north. Unfortunately, this never happened.

Jimmy Carter slashed the budget for the Shuttle, and so NASA had to convert it from an efficient space-plane into a gas-guzzling SUV of the Skies (thanks to the loss of a reusable first stage in favor of throwaway boosters), and funds were not available for building a space station. Although Ronald Reagan restored funding for a station, the Challenger disaster seriously hampered efforts, and taking on international partners turned a serious American affair into another U.N. ``Oil For Food`` fiasco in which American money earmarked for building the thing was sucked out by our partners. As a result, the ISS (which was supposed to be named ``Freedom``) has never captured the public interest; who gives a rats hindquarters about an ``international`` space station? It needed to be an American station! The public has no reason to care.

Furthermore, the Russians have had several stations, and we had Skylab. There really isn`t any glamour to the ISS. It isn`t doing anything new, and the missions on the station seem to serve no useful purpose. Remember, the it was originally intended to be merely a way-station, sort of an early day Las Vegas in the sky. (Vegas was originally an airplane refueling stop.) Vegas at least had the sense to invite tourists to stay and gamble; the ISS should take a page from the Desert Oasis.

Which is something NASA has opposed bitterly. The Russians decided to use their sections of the station for bed and breakfast accomodations (I`m amazed Bill Clinton didn`t think of that!) and NASA went into a tizzy! The Russians were right; bringing millionaires into space may seem snobbish, but it is a lot less snobbish than the current system. That has been part of the problem; everyone knows that they are never going to get beyond the atmosphere. Space is for the lucky few who dedicate their lives to NASA. These are the high priests, and the ISS is the holy of holies. There is nothing there for the common man. But if you can buy a room...

Which is precisely what the Artemis Society has been trying to do for years. They are a group dedicated to using private funds to build a Hotel on the Moon. They (rightly) believe that the settlement of space is critical, and a Tranquility Hilton will facilitate that settlement. Space tourism has the potential to be massive, and will excite the public since they will have the option to go (if they don`t mind ending up in hock). People will go too; consider how well these adventure packages to Antarctica, or the Himalayas do. The exclusivity makes the concept all the more attractive, but it will not be so exclusive as to be impossible (as it is now.)

Where I seriously disagree with Mr. Shlichta is his suggested remedy to NASA`s woes. He wants to redefine the Agency`s mission, changing to a more Earth-oriented, eco-friendly endeavor. He seems to be particularly keen on the concept of using NASA to conduct liberal environmentalist studies. He points to the popularity of environmentalism and Earth Day, and seems to think this will excite the public. (I would point out that NASA has been doing that very thing for several years, and the public has not been thrilled.) He thinks NASA should spend it`s time looking for asteroids, studying Earth bound phonomena, and whatnot.

I have one word for all of this-zzzzz! Nothing he is proposing will help NASA get the public excited about space, and none of what he proposes they do requires MANNED spaceflight. He is proposing NASA committ Hari-Kari! Most people who are into environmentalism hate the military/industrial complex, and hate manned space flight because it requires big aerospace corporations and a massive industrial base, as well as sucks up funds for social programs (not to mention launch vehicles belch out massive amounts of ``pollution``.) Using NASA to help these people is akin to public financing of Jihadist Mosques; in both cases you are helping the enemy. Environmentalists have no love for the space program.

Looking for asteroids is a decent idea, except there isn`t anything we can DO about them, given the current state of affairs. What NASA should be doing is going to some of these near-Earth asteroids! THAT will excite the public; pictures of men and women hanging on the side of a flying mountain! We could learn a lot about asteroids, plus it wouldn`t be excessively expensive, plus it would help us figure out how to deal with them before they deal with us.

What I think NASA`s mission should be is a return to the Moon. The first Lunar landings were spectaculars without any plans for permanence. We need to build a Lunar Colony. I`m not talking about a couple of soft-landed mobile homes, mind you, but permanent structures with an eye on industrial developement. (If the astronauts want to sit around drinking Milwaukee`s Best and watching reruns of Mama`s Family, they can stay on Earth; NASA should not be building trailer parks!) Nasa should be partnering with private industries and organizations. The Artemis Society, or the L5 Society would be more than willing to pony up cash and technical assistance. We need more real people in space, and less media gods.

Ultimately, Mars is calling and we will have to answer eventually. The problem with Mars is that it is too far (given current propulsion systems) and will be too expensive. If we go to Mars now, we will blow the entire budget, and ultimately make no headway-just as the Apollo program ultimately set us back since it emphasized going but not staying. We need to work out the bugs of planetary settlement, and that can be done quite well on the Moon, which is a decent-sized planet 240,000 miles away. The good thing about the Moon is that we can always come home if something goes wrong; a Mars shot would be entirely on it`s own.

We need to learn about living in lower gravity. We need to learn how to protect ourselves from solar storms and cosmic rays. The ISS is inside the Earth`s magnetic field and thus is protected from a good deal of radiation. We need to see if we can live outside the magnetosphere. We need to see what happens to different life-forms.

In short, we need practice over the long haul. We should go back to the Moon with the intention of staying, we should visit near-Earth asteroids, we should look to build infrastructure for industry. The ISS failed at industry because it was not designed for it. Imagine trying to make textiles on board a cargo ship; the ship wasn`t designed to be a textile factory, so anything made aboard would be expensive and inferior. If you want industry, you build a factory. We need to build factories in space, then prices will drop and quality will rise. With unlimited power (thanks to Mr. Sun) space industries will ultimately prove superior to Earth-bound industry; they are non-polluting (well, nobody cares if they pollute), more efficient, less cost-intensive thanks to virtually free energy, and they have the benefits of microgravity and hard vacuum. Materials from the Moon and asteroids will ultimately result in drastically lower supply costs.

What we don`t need is to spend eternity gazing at our own navels. Mr. Shlichta is proposing a very narcissistic idea; we turn our backs on OUTER space and concern ourselves mainly with Earth. Why he thinks this will improve the public perception of the space program is beyond me. We have been studying the Earth for quite some time, and we can do that easily with unmanned satellites and whatnot. His proposal will ultimately lead to a reduction in manned spaceflight. When Las Vegas advertises trips, do they emphasize the mundane? Do they try to get people interested in coming by stressing their city parks and office buildings? Why would they want to emphasize what everybody has at home? No, Las Vegas advertises casinos, bawdy entertainment, glittering showgirls. They sell themselves as something different and exciting. NASA has something very different and exciting to offer. They need to take a page from Vegas!



Anonymous GM Roper said...

"They need to take a page from Vegas!"

And maybe from P.T. Barnum!

Good Report mi amigo.

5:30 PM  

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