November 06, 2003

Getting There from Here

Speaking of the Future with Rand Simberg

There's nothing quite like the wisdom that can be gleaned from old movie posters. Consider one of the original posters for Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff. Under a picture of Sam Shepherd as Chuck Yeager, wearing a battered and smoldering depressurized flight suit, walking away from a plane crash with his partially melted helmet crooked under his arm, his face black with soot were printed these memorable words:

How the future began.

It's an evocative turn of phrase. If only it were true. Even when the movie was released twenty years ago, it was unclear that the events depicted in the film — primarily the Mercury missions, with a little bit of the Air Force rocket plane programs thrown in for good measure — were anything more than false starts on our way to a true space age. It might seem a little odd to describe Mercury as a "false start," seeing as that program led to Apollo. But as glorious as Apollo was, by 1983 it was (and is now even more so) a piece of the historical record, an artifact of the past. Two decades later, we're still waiting for the future to begin.

Well, here's a guy who has some thoughts on how we can get it started. Rand Simberg is a self-described "recovering aerospace engineer" whose weblog, Transterrestrial Musings, is one of the best sources on the web for lucid, insightful writing on developments in space technology and policy. Rand also writes for FOX News and Tech Central Station (and he covers a wide variety of topics, not just space.)

In the interview that follows, Rand and I discuss how and whether the space age got off track, and if so what we can do to get the future started in earnest.

I was talking with some folks the other night about the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the movie was released in 1968, it seemed a reasonable projection of the future: a true space station, regular commercial flights to space, permanent lunar settlements, and exploratory missions to the outer planets, all within about 30 years. Here we are 35 years later, and most of those things seem more distant now than they did then. Whatever happened to our future in space?

It was based on a lot of false assumptions, foremost being that the government was going to make it happen. We believed the rhetoric about "not because it's easy, but because it's hard," and the new frontier, and thought that the government actually cared about this stuff. But even the myth that a visionary president can lead us to the stars, exemplified by the Kennedy worshipers, has been shown to be false — he never gave a damn about space.

The irony is that if we hadn't been derailed by Apollo, which had much more to do with waging the Cold War on a peaceful front, and industrializing the south, than space, we'd probably be a lot closer to the vision of 2001 today. The Air Force was flying into space with the X-15, and it's possible that we would have continued along that path, a much more natural one, and that might have spun off into the private sector. But instead, in our hurry to get to the moon, we chose the most expensive way to do it, and established it as the fundamental paradigm for spaceflight that haunts us to this day.

Now that a we have a little distance (very little) from the Columbia disaster and the Gehman report, what's your best guess as to the future of the space shuttle?

My best guess is that we'll fly it a few more years, at which point it will become clear to all, even people in the government, that the private sector is leading the way to a more sane human spaceflight industry, and just get NASA out of the earth-to-LEO business completely, except as a customer of services. That's certainly my hope.

What about the future of NASA itself? You've written that it might be time for the agency to be put to rest, or that it could (with some substantial changes) play a part in supporting the entrepreneurial efforts that will be required to truly push humanity into space. Which of the two scenarios do you consider more likely? And if NASA is going to carry on, what are the fundamental changes that you think the agency will have to make in order to do so?

Unfortunately, I don't consider either very likely, but one can always hope. I'm not sure there are any changes that you can make with it as an existing agency — there's simply too much bureaucratic inertia there. I find it ironic that Japan just merged their three space agencies into one, because I think that we should go in the opposite direction here. R&D should be split out completely from operations, assuming that there should even be an operational part of government civil space. A lot of things like the commercial development centers, to the degree that it should be done at all, might be better done out of the Department of Commerce.

When I interviewed Robert Zubrin a while back, he was worried about the end of the shuttle program — not because he's a fan of the orbiter, but because he doesn't want to see the heavy-lift-capable shuttle launch infrastructure go the way of the Saturn V. If the shuttle is completely scrapped, is there anything on the horizon that might provide the same kind of lift as the shuttle boosters or the Saturn V? If not, what does the foreseeable future of space exploration look like, with only relatively light launch capability at our disposal?

I think that heavy lift is highly overrated. If we get cheap launch with small vehicles, you'll see a lot of innovative thinking in terms of orbital assembly techniques and new design concepts for orbital infrastructure and vehicles that allow us to do without it. The perceived need for a heavy lifter is always one of the major showstoppers to doing anything ambitious, and it needn't be. It's a fundamental economics problem. Big vehicles really do cost a lot more up front than small vehicles, particularly in terms of the ground infrastructure, but the market for payloads that size is simply too small to justify them. I expect to see heavy lift come along after the market is developed sufficiently to take advantage of it, just as we didn't see a need for a 747 until the 707 and other smaller jets had established the market.

Of course, unlike Dr. Zubrin, I'm in no rush to get to Mars.

Arthur C. Clarke is famously quoted as saying that once you're in Earth orbit, you're half way to anywhere. One of the reasons that I'm not as excited about the X Prize as some is that the it is aimed at achieving sub-orbital flight objectives. Why is new sub-orbital technology important? What does it give us?

Well, actually, that was Bob Heinlein, not Clarke. New suborbital technology is important for a number of reasons. First of all, it provides an entry point for the private industry that's affordable to investors with a realistic ROI. Second, it will teach us a lot about developing and operating launchers on a routine, reusable, affordable basis. Third, it will blow up a lot of misconceptions about the true cost of this stuff, because I'm confident that the costs of the private folks will show up the conventional government/industry cost models as being out of whack by at least one, if not two orders of magnitude. Fourth, it will develop a market of wealthy space travelers who will be interested in the next step, and have the money to plow into developing it.

Yes, orbit is a lot tougher job than suborbit, but as the suborbits gradually get faster and higher, eventually they become orbits. The real key is that, as Jeff Greason of XCOR says, to learn to do orbit cheaply and reliably, you learn to do something cheaply and reliably, then gradually increase the performance, building on lessons learned. This is the opposite approach to NASA's, which has always been to design to the end performance goal, and then try to figure out how to make it cheap and operable (usually with insufficient development budget). That approach has never worked, and probably never will.

You've been an advocate of private development and implementation of space technology. Can you provide a scenario by which private interests could drive us towards settlement of the moon, the planets, and/or the asteroids? Why do you think such a scenario is more likely than an attempt to achieve these objectives via government programs?

Well, I'm a contrarian here. The conventional wisdom, based on history, is that places are first settled for extractive economic reasons, and that only after they've become settled and "civilized" do the tourists come. Similarly, people (particularly in the conventional space industry) assume that, if space tourism comes at all, it will only be after the cost of launch has been driven down, and safety has increased, by some magical new whiz-bang technology.

As is often the case, the conventional wisdom is not particularly wise. I think that they've got things on their head. Launch costs are high, and vehicles unreliable, not because we lack technology, but because we lack markets. We do so little spaceflight that we haven't learned how to do it well, and we don't have any economies of scale. The only obvious large market, that doesn't require other major technological advances (e.g., solar power satellites, Helium 3 fusion), is people who want to go and will pay for the service.

Those payloads are already built, the payload interface is very simple and straightforward (keester and seat) and there are many more being manufactured every day, with unskilled labor. Because the world is growing wealthier, with socialism being replaced by freedom in many places, and adventure travel as an industry is already large and growing, looking to history as a guide to the future is in this case mistaken.

On the other hand, we've seen the result of government programs for the last four and a half decades. There's neither will, nor any clear path for them to create space settlements. The only way that I can see the government developing serious spacefaring capability will be if we're imminently threatened by some celestial object.

Can you estimate whether and when you think each of the following will occur?
Expedition to Mars? Permanent settlement on the Moon? Commercial Space Flight ? Manned Mission to Jupiter or Saturn?

There will certainly be an expedition to Mars. I would predict within the next couple decades if done privately, much longer (and perhaps never) if done by anything resembling NASA in its current form.

Permanent settlement on the moon? Yes, and it will likely be a resort initially.

Commercial space flight already exists, in the form of the commercial launch industry, but if you mean human space flight, in the suborbital sense it should commence within two years. Orbital is probably five to eight years off.

I don't see a manned mission to the gas giants for several decades with conventional technology, though nanotech could accelerate that considerably.

Finally, what are the most significant issues right now that have to be addressed in order for any of the above to happen?

To some degree, they already are being addressed. We need a clear and manageable regulatory environment, and some intelligent government policy in general. The Outer Space Treaty, another relic of the Cold War, needs to be scrapped or modified to have more explicit mechanisms for the establishment of property rights, and we need to amend the Liability Convention of 1972 to reduce liability risk for investors. But the most important barrier to date has been the inability to raise money. X-Prize is going to open up some peoples' eyes, and investors are now starting to take this sector seriously. They'll do so even more when someone gets rich by investing in an XCOR or Space-X. The other encouraging thing is that the dotcommers are getting interested, and turning to this new challenge. It would help a lot of NASA administrators would stop saying how difficult/impossible this is, but that's probably an unrealistic hope, since that's how they justify their budgets. I hope that in the future people will pay increasing less attention to them. The barriers are red tape and public perception. Let's tackle those, which is one of the reasons that I have my blog.

Rand Simberg also recently took on our Seven Questions About the Future.

Also see Speaking of the Future with...

Nina Paley | Phil Bowermaster | Michael Anissimov | Ramona | Robert Zubrin | Alex Lightman | Aubrey de Grey

Posted by Phil at November 6, 2003 07:37 AM | TrackBack

And this is my homepage.

Posted by: Andy Baldini at August 2, 2004 01:47 AM
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