Thursday, June 09, 2016

Space: big plans and misplaced schemes!

I'm preparing to head east for a meeting of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC)... and a couple of other DC area events: one for the White House (OSTP), one for the Caltech Alumni Assn, and an AIAA panel on future military aircraft... followed by an appearance at the Ideacity idea festival in Toronto. 

Busy trip. Busy topics. Busy times for a civilization that deserves far-seeing citizens and leaders.

== Thinking big about space ==

If you are anywhere near the Washington DC - Baltimore area July 1-3, consider attending the Escape Velocity convention - a micro futuristic world's fair focusing on Science Fiction and STEAM education, sponsored by the new DC area Museum of Science Fiction.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX announced an ambitious new plan to land an unmanned spacecraft on Mars as soon as 2018 with NASA providing technical support -- "an extraordinary collaboration between the public and private sectors in an effort to eventually get humans to the Red Planet."

As no doubt all of you know, in another success for Elon: SpaceX launched a communications satellite into orbit and for the fourth time they were able to recover the rocket, again on a drone ship at sea. This was another really tough geosynchronous launch like the previous one and hence may not be re-usable except for spares. But that just makes it double impressive! And... onboard cameras covered the rocket's descent.

Amazon and Blue Origins CEO Jeff Bezos wants to build giant factories in space... to save the Earth, proclaiming a vision of "millions of people living and working in space."

After an initial failure, NASA  inflated the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, an essential tech for human-crewed spaceflight. And we are on our way to 2016 being as terrific a year for our outward progress as fantastic as 2015 was.

Canadian firm Thoth Technology Inc. has been granted both U.S. and U.K. patents for an inflatable tower designed to take astronauts up into the stratosphere, so they can then be propelled into space. A freestanding structure complete with an electrical elevator up to a 20km (12.5 miles) high launch platform.  In other words in all ways precisely the design that I described in my novel Sundiver (1980). Anyone remember the Vanilla Needle? One difference.  Mine was big enough that balloons could use buoyancy in the high pressure space to lift cargoes most of the way.

Yuri Milner, the Russian philanthropist and Internet entrepreneur, announced a plan on Tuesday to send a fleet of robots no bigger than iPhones to Alpha Centauri. “Once in orbit, the probes would unfold thin sails and then, propelled by powerful laser beams from Earth,” say reports The $10 billion project aims to accelerate the mini-probes to a fifth of the speed of light… perhaps a bit of an ambitious goal for Earth-based lasers just a decade or two from now.  See also “Instead of starships, try StarChips.”

A more extensive exploration of Milner’s many Breakthrough Institute projects, in collaboration with Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg and former NASA Ames head Pete Worden -- including a vast expansion of SETI, can be found in The Atlantic, and a detailed technical description of the plans will appear on the project’s website.

A final note on this, for now.  Those of you who have purchased Insistence of Vision know that one story - “The Avalon Probes” – offers up an ironic commentary on exactly this approach. And of course… it’s an early version of exactly the scenario that I mapped out – more seriously detailed - in Existence. With one exception.  I proposed that before going interstellar we aim for an earlier, intermediate goal of the solar gravitational lens focal zone, just 550 astronomical units out.  Seriously, the Breakthrough Institute could probably use one more advisory board member….

== Forcing a return to the (useless) moon, instead of getting rich out there ==

Space politicized? The current U.S. House of Representatives, already the laziest and most dogmatically useless national legislative body in American history, has now altered NASA’s budget, forcing the space agency to return to a Bush Era priority: “no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid. Instead, NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon.”

To be clear, there should be nothing political about these priorities. I serve on neutral commissions to evaluate missions based on their likely scientific and other outcomes. Nearly all scientists agree that there is little or nothing to be gained from any near term manned return to the sterile lunar surface, which offers humanity nothing of any near future value. Though the region called 'cis-lunar space' - the orbit just above the moon - is seen as extremely valuable.

In contrast, both scientific and commercial interest in asteroids is intense, with several nations and companies like Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries eagerly investing in what could be the 21st Century’s giga-Gold Rush.

The Obama Administration’s and NASA’s goal for manned flight - ramping up operations in lunar orbit, learning to both study asteroidal resources and work on extended missions - is exactly right and supported by the best expert advice.  

Expertise that the current House leadership banished from Congress when they disbanded their own Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) for the crime of presenting them with fact-based analyses. Instead, leaders like Dennis Hastert, Thomas DeLay, John Boehner and Paul Ryan chose to rely on majority members’ gut instincts.

Those guts have made this matter - which should be nonpartisan and scientific - part of culture war, with one party praising Return To The Moon for no other reason, certainly not science or potential profit. Their sole rationalization? “The Europeans and Chinese are talking about moon trips!”

Yeah, so? Let the Chinese and Europeans and billionaire tourists have that sterile ball. We have lifted our gaze to more interesting and likely far more rewarding vistas. Vistas that only the United States can take on, instead of being copycats.  (Hint for U.S. voters: let's get rid of those twits?)

There's more. When the Obama Administration canceled the Bush boondoggle Constellation Programs, it seemed that money might be spent on actual missions to explore the cosmos.  Instead, Congress in 2010 imposed a restoration of core elements of Constellation, called the Space Launch System (SLS), resurrecting many Space Shuttle components for a system without any mission on the near or intermediate horizons.  And now the GOP-run House and Senate have since imposed increases in the SLS budget, mostly at the expense of science missions.  All of this against a backdrop of success in the Obama endeavor to spin off and commercialize orbital launch services to private companies, which are developing capabilities at a vastly quicker rate.  (Example: most of the expensive SLS systems will be rendered redundant by - for example - the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and Dragon capsule.)

“Unfortunately, once the rocket is built, the expenses don't end. Ground crews must be kept ready, supply lines kept open, and contractors taken care of. These fixed costs can be enormous. For the space shuttle, those costs amounted to about $2.5 billion annually—whether the vehicle flew or not…”  So much for the  party that opposes government boondoggles.  Of course part of it is pure pork: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), wants SLS because it is managed by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. And MSFC has been Instrumental for 30 years in systematically preventing humans from getting into space.  

See my earlier posting: Does the moon beckon us back?

Asteroids seem a more promising target in the near future....


Anonymous said...

The Grande Olde Confederate Party will soon be made to pay for their reliance on White Supremacy. All their angry old white men are dying out and all their young angry white men are too busy shooting up Oxycontin to vote. Herr Drumpf candidacy will likely soon implode, though I would not even begin to calculate the over/under odds of that happening before or after the GOP convention. He might even end up doing it on purpose, taking a dive like Sen. McCain after he realized what an imbecile he had picked for VP.

The other plank of the Confederacy; Science Denialism, will damage their electoral prospects for every succeeding presidential election. Will Paul Ryan/Ted Cruz have much success in the 2020 election after five or six super-hot summers in a row? The anti-Chicken Little's will have nowhere to run after rising seas and unpredictable hurricane seasons demolish the shore side cities of the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Atlantic states.

Interesting times indeed.


Horrorshow said...

Earlier today I learned about the Asteroid Redirect Mission which NASA was developing to go to an asteroid, collect a boulder from said asteroid then move it into a stable orbit around our moon. It's still listed on NASA's website.
I searched for more info and maybe a twitter link to follow their progress like NASA New Horizons and NASA Webb Telescope for example, which are fantastic! Instead I find it is no longer funded. Well, I was excited for about five minutes....

Paul SB said...

I think a real poverty of the imagination helps to explain the focus on Luna. Landing on Luna was a glory these old fogies in Congress remember from their pre-wrinkle youths, but because they are mostly lawyers and businessmen, they don't have the relevant scientific experience to really get, deep down (grok?) what really matters. This is not just true for the space program. Our political caste, as they become more and more like a true caste, become increasingly out of touch with the nation they rule. They might pay token experts who mostly tell them what they want to hear, but that only insulates them further from reality. So they think that by offering the same glorious mission that was accomplished in their younger days it will distract everyone from real issues - a very poor attempt at old school bait-and-switch tactics.

Unfortunately, the "antiestablishment" sentiment isn't offering us a better alternative.

AZM, have you thought about putting new generation flexible solar panels on your airship? All that surface area on top and down the flanks could provide plenty of electricity, and much safer than a micro reactor.

Hop David said...

It usually takes 1.5 to 2 km/s to get to an altitude of 100 km where the air's thin enough a ship can do the major horizontal burn (about 8 km/s).

How much of that 1.5 to 2 km/s would ascending 20 kilometers save? Not that much. The ship would still need to ascend 80 km and during that ascent would be suffering gravity loss.

Even if the tower is largely a balloon, still a huge downward weight. Compressible balloons don't stop this very tall structure from buckling and tipping over.

Do they hope to make the tower buoyant? That would be a huge amount of helium. Hydrogen is perhaps more available but hydrogen filled cells would be a disaster waiting to happen.

Hop David said...

Horrorshow wrote "Earlier today I learned about the Asteroid Redirect Mission which NASA was developing to go to an asteroid, collect a boulder from said asteroid then move it into a stable orbit around our moon. ... I find it is no longer funded. Well, I was excited for about five minutes...."

Indeed -- the Asteroid Redirect Mission is very exciting. Sadly the only people I can find supporting it are myself and Jon Goff. Looks like this idea is going down in flames.

Oh, and David Brin. Brin tells me there's a lot of support for parking asteroids in lunar orbit. When I ask him who, he replies that he knows all the smartest people and I'm dumb to question him. What does that argument convince me? That Brin does a good impression of Donald Trump.

Tony Fisk said...

Balloons, the way Francesco di Lana envisaged them.

Starting your rocket from 20km avoids much of the air drag (and weather)

matthew said...

Seeing more and more of the #NeverHillary folks speaking out in the wake of the coming rapprochement between Sanders and Hillary. I suspect the Kochs are now backing Jill Stein as their 3rd party spoiler. All of a sudden, her paid ads are all over my social media feeds. Suspicious much?

David Brin said...

On prev. thread I answered donzelion's question as to why I am a registered republican.

David Brin said...

HD: if you are the person I think you are, then that's one strike. You screamed and attacked without giving me a chance to answer, and without even bothering to read information freely available at Planetary Resources, Deepspace Industries or the other startups well-funded by geniuses.

Or read John Lewis's 1980s classic MINING THE SKY or recent updates, showing how some asteroids are made of nickel-iron. Others contain gold and silver and platinum in ores that are orders of magnitude better than any ever ever found on Earth.

Or you'd know that it's the water (stupid) that is both easiest to extract and by far the most useful in space, saving us billions in launch costs from Earth, if we can get it flowing well enough. And no, the ice my own group at UCSD discovered at the moon's poles is insufficient and harder (by far) to get and should (anyway) be left as a resource for later Lunarians.

You'd know at least some of that if you weren't a whiney, snippy twerp. Or else, you'd know it simply by asking like a decent person. Please leave.

David Brin said...

Okay. So suddenly, Jill Stein's Green Party is flooding the socialsphere, trawling for angry Bernites. Gee, I wonder where she got the money. (The sound of coughing - *Koch* *Koch* *Koch!*) Those boys actually think they can fracture Blue America, the way Red (actually gray) America has been shredded by the madness the Kochs & Murdoch & the Saudis financed all these years.

It won't happen. Bernie will show us all.

Jumper said...

I'm for all of it except Mars right now. Asteroid capture, Ceres drilling, some base-stocking Phobos station building. Lunar tube exploration. Water research, lunar and cometary. More drilling. Iron meteor capture. Survey for elements. Learn how to take a part of Ceres ice and send it to Venus. That last bit probably comes after Mars.

Alfred Differ said...

Starting rockets from 20km does help in terms of the rocket's mass. The needed delta-vee is still essentially the same, but changing the mass fraction is really useful.

Another thing to consider is that with a stationary platform at 20km, there is no reason to stick to the same design for buoyant vehicles that can reach the ground and buoyant vehicles that only ever fly higher. We don't design ocean going ships the same way as river travelling ships, so specialization could be useful if we have a high altitude dock. Many ideas have been proposed, but it's harder than it sounds. Helium is a slippery little devil.

Alfred Differ said...

Whether one focuses upon the Moon or asteroids, I always ask them to consider what business problem they are solving with a proposal. Extracting science money to do science is a good thing, but solving business problems is a kind of innovation that brings investors who couldn't care less about science. It is the investors who have the most money to give.

David Brin said...

NOT Helium! Think. Air is fine if your aim is pressurized stiffening. It is the balloons that would use helium. Also, from 20km you can trade some height for speed and then kick in hypersonic scramjets.

Jumper names something that'd attract me back to the Moon. Exploring those cave and lava tubes.

raito said...

I'm still rather in favor of Luna, as in a lunar colony. I think there's a lot to learn from that experiment, both about the moon and about living in that sort of environment. It may even be that it's a preferable alternative to Del Rey's Step To The Stars idea of building interplanetary craft in earth orbit. This doesn't mean that I eschew either Mars or the asteroids. Of course, I'd have been much happier if we had that colony 40 years ago.

I got to hear an interview with Lewis Dartnell, who wrote The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. It's a rumination on what knowledge would be necessary to rebuild our technological civilization rapidly should any of the Mad Max scenarios come to pass.

I can't say that I like his website, and I think he really needs to study some history (Europe in the 1300's was not populated by ubermensches who could be dropped into the wilderness any more than we could today). However, he IS an optimist in that he believes that humanity wouldn't go through centuries of another Dark Ages, but would rebound rather quickly. That, at least, put him on the side of the good guys.

#1 piece of knowledge required to build society? The Scientific Method, because it is a knowledge generator.

#2? When pressed, he said germ theory.

donzelion said...

@Alfred - "Extracting science money to do science is a good thing, but solving business problems is a kind of innovation that brings investors who couldn't care less about science."

I am thinking of Dr. Sadava's take on Werner Arber's study of bacteriophages - a 'basic science' project with no conceivable business application in 1960, but which became the basis for most modern biotechnology (Sadava traces how one seminal theory, with no conceivable utility that anyone at the time would perceive, led several American scientists doing basic biological science - like Hamilton Smith, Daniel Nathans, Stanley Cohen, and Herbert Boyer to found what became modern biotechnology - Genentech, the first big modern biotech company, was one expression of 'doing science that way' - there are many others now).

And I am thinking of the history of science, which until universities (and governments) financed basic science, occurred mostly at the whim of oligarchs who financed 'innovations' they saw as useful - or kept a stable of 'useful geniuses' around for entertainment value. When science is driven by non-scientists seeking social/political/financial return on investment, science has moved pretty slowly.

That's why I hesitate to endorse a view that the focus should be on business applications. Perhaps ROI could be one among several other criteria for consideration when setting priorities, but by the time anyone can even contemplate ROI, others will have done the basic work that makes such concepts plausible, largely for no (or little) reward beyond the joy of grappling with difficult problems. And I really hate the thought of scientists needing to perfect the art of salesmanship...

donzelion said...

@Raito - "I'm still rather in favor of Luna, as in a lunar colony."

As am I, but not for the scientific (or commercial) value per se, esp for the 'living in that sort of environment' portion. I'm optimistic that the lesser tweaks of humans having to solve problems of operating in a difficult environment will yield a payoff that may not be achievable elsewhere, esp. if there is some way to increase the total independence for them to utilize their own resources to pursue those problems (rather than, as I understand it, primarily relying on earth-bound work and serving as 'skilled hands that follow instructions' - becoming more generally independent).

Perhaps a Lunar Base is analogous to the Vikings pursuing Iceland first, then Greenland, then America approach to expansion. Didn't work out that well, BUT did contribute to the total pool of knowledge about fundamentals that later made colonization easier.

#1 piece of knowledge required to build society?
My pick: literacy. Everything else can be recovered, so long as we remain able to remember.

donzelion said...

@Dr. Brin - re the tower, I really liked the give and take in this story about it from last year:

As a non-scientist/non-engineer, the best I can do (for now) is read through the give-and-take among those who are, and be grateful that such folks are working on such thoughts. Of course, if the Thoth folks are looking for $10 billion to get started on their project, I wonder how that would play against all the other competing claims out there...

Paul SB said...

Raito, while the Scientific Method is huge, we have had it for a few centuries, now, and there are still huge numbers of people who don't get it at all or think that all science is evil. I was going to say that once you have Sci Meth established, things like Germ Theory will ultimately follow in time. But there are still people who bring their sick children to exorcists instead of doctors. Maybe what we need even more is Critical Thinking (which ultimately is what the Scientific Method is about, anyway). If people are taught critical thinking skills before they are taught both science and history, they are likely to get it. I can't honestly say that I really got it until I was in grad school. I started my undergrad work as a history major, but after a couple years it was clear to me that most historians are less interested in pursuing truth than they are in looking for proof of their preconceived notions and calling it truth. That was when I changed majors to a science, but I probably didn't really absorb scientific ontology into my bones until I had been through the whole post modern thing in grad school, tempted by the dark side, as it were.

Poets, priests and politicians all want people to nod their heads and agree with them, not think critically. We are fed obedience in every corner of society. Is it any wonder that only a handful of people ever really get the value of science, when it is in the interests of so many of our institutions to turn us into corn-fed cattle? But if we started teaching critical thinking to children at an early age, maybe the next generation would start to cut through the 8000 year old strata or manure that makes up most human culture. Science - absolutely! But if we have been teaching our horses to drink beer & soda all these years, they won't drink water when you lead them to it.

raito said...


Those were his picks, not necessarily mine. If those were mine, I'd probably put literacy as #3. Remembering doesn't do you any good if you can't do anything with it. I think the presupposition was that most everything, physical at least, was lost, so using literacy as a recovery mechanism would have been a cheat to the experiment.

So it would come down to:
the ability to increase knowledge,
the ability to survive in an inherently unclean environment (long enough to make use of knowledge),
the ability to transmit knowledge (which can be done, though less effectively, through means other than literacy).

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the main post:

Canadian firm Thoth Technology Inc. has been granted both U.S. and U.K. patents for an inflatable tower designed to take astronauts up into the stratosphere, so they can then be propelled into space. A freestanding structure complete with an electrical elevator up to a 20km (12.5 miles) high launch platform. In other words in all ways precisely the design that I described in my novel Sundiver (1980). Anyone remember the Vanilla Needle?

I didn't realize it was inflatable, but yes, I remember.

I also remember there was an adventure yet to be told at that location. Did you ever publish that short story?

LarryHart said...

AtomicZeppelinMan as Anonymous:

Herr Drumpf candidacy will likely soon implode, though I would not even begin to calculate the over/under odds of that happening before or after the GOP convention. He might even end up doing it on purpose, taking a dive like Sen. McCain after he realized what an imbecile he had picked for VP.

I'm impressed that someone besides myself thinks McCain realized what he had wrought with Palin and purposely undermined his own campaign for the good of the country.

I can't see Trump doing it for the same reason, but I can see him deciding that actually being president isn't what he wants to do for the next 4 to 8 years and purposely blowing the election for that reason. IMHO, Trump is in the position of Max Bialystock in "The Producers", where he really wanted to produce a flop with attendant noteriety, but unfortunately can't stop his production from being a hit.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Okay. So suddenly, Jill Stein's Green Party is flooding the socialsphere, trawling for angry Bernites. Gee, I wonder where she got the money. (The sound of coughing - *Koch* *Koch* *Koch!*) Those boys actually think they can fracture Blue America,

Do they want President Trump? Otherwise, I'm not sure how that helps their cause. Unless they think they can fracture the Democrats so much that Gary Johnson ends up in the top three, and can be selected by the House of Representatives.

LarryHart said...


Just sayin'...

We have consistently argued that all the "Trump or Clinton" polls we're seeing these days are dumb, for three reasons:

1) It's still too early
2) The president is chosen by electoral, not popular, vote
3) Clinton was still fighting a competitor, Trump was not

The last of those things is no longer true, as Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee. And predictably, the first national Trump v. Clinton poll to come out since she passed 2,383 shows her rising and The Donald falling. More precisely, the poll—conducted by Fox News— has her up 42 to 39. That's three points, and if we consider Fox News' house effect, it could be more like four or five. Now, there's no good reason that three or four or five people in 100 should flip; we don't really know anything today that we didn't know a week ago. So it really just underscores the overall point: Ignore the polls until after the conventions.

locumranch said...

I'm intrigued by the 'Starchip' (and/or iPhone) probe idea & I wonder why anyone would think this is a viable option.

People do realise, don't they, that such little robotic probes would be useless as data gatherers because Outer Space lacks wifi & internet access? And, if the mission was to let some yet unknown alien race know that humans once existed (as in that terrible NexGen 'Ressikan flute' episode), don't they understand that it would serve the same purpose & be more 'cost effective' to launch a truckload of empty pop bottles, remaindered plug-in toasters & half-eaten McD's Happy Meals on the same mission?

I can't think of a more appropriate monument to modern Human Culture than a Great Interstellar Garbage Patch stretching from Sol to Alpha Centauri.

At the heart of our cultural Otherness lies a huge nugget of Narcissism, I suspect, including the counterintuitive assumption that our self-denigrative Other Acceptance provides simultaneous 'proof' of our Moral Superiority & Exceptionalism (in the sense that we expect the random Other to exalt us with its assumed endorsement of cultural Otherness).**

**This suggests that the Fermi Paradox may represent an 'Idea of Reference'.

Jumper said...

It will be expensive to grow food on the moon compared to Mars because plants don't like 2 weeks of darkness.

sociotard said...

We have to return to the moon so it doesn't look like our empire is in decline when the Chinese go. NASA has always been the cock-crowing wing of our empire, with science as a mildly pleasant bonus (except when it veers into politically tinged science, like anthropogenic climate change).

Jumper said...

The North Carolina motto is "To be rather than to seem."

LarryHart said...


The North Carolina motto is "To be rather than to seem."

Didn't they just make it illegal to factor climate change into projections of coastal erosion?

donzelion said...

@Raito - "What one piece of knowledge would be required to rebuild society after a devastating collapse?"

LOL, I'll stick with 'literacy.' Germ theory assumes other technologies before it's "useful" so it's also a cheat. It took millennia/centuries of experimentation to make clear glass, and though the secrets may have passed orally from one generation to the next, had the results had been written down and shared, the enterprise might have gone faster.

- the ability to increase/transmit knowledge,
Um, a natural outgrowth of literacy?

- the ability to survive in an inherently unclean environment
In a societal collapse, where survival is reduced dramatically, literacy makes the best contributions of the survivors capable of enduring.

Now (tongue-in-cheek), I'm picturing the other great effect of literacy, which would be to enable science-minded folks from one community to converse with their counterparts in other communities. We'd probably see a "Postman" arise, who even if he didn't inspire renewed civic hope, would at least enable those folks to converse with one another - empowering a deeper revival...gee, whoever thought of that? ;-)

occam's comic said...

Manned space exploration is dangerous, expensive and has a very low return on investment.

The space station is a giant subsidy dumpster for the aerospace industry. It has been and continues to be extremely expensive and it has a very poor rate of return for the investment. In terms of scientific discovery and technological innovation both the space station and the space shuttles have cost us an enormous amount and have given us very little.
I would argue that just about any unmanned space mission far out preformed the manned space missions in term of ratio of money spent on the mission verse the scientific discoveries and technological innovations that flowed from the mission. We would be much better off if we banned manned space exploration for twenty years and just focused on the unmanned missions.

And just a reminder Solar Power Satellites will not be economically competitive verses ground based solar / wind. Launch cost even for a fully reusable rocket would still make SPS uncompetitive, and that is not even counting the enormous research and development cost needed before you can even start building the first solar power satellite.

And as far as space manufacturing goes, what product can support the enormous cost of manufacturing in space? And if the manufacturing process can’t be automated and needs people involved that will make the process maybe 10 – 100 times more expensive.

And from a military perspective, although the “high ground” in space has many appealing qualities, it is also very vulnerable to counter attack. Just initiate the Kessler Syndrome and destroy the usefulness of all orbiting satellites.

Just say no to canned humans in space, say yes to unmanned exploration.

Ioan said...

Occam's comic,

But how much money can be made on unmanned probes OUTSIDE of Earth orbit as opposed to canned humans? Canned humans can spawn new industries on Earth, providing employment. Heck, they might even help modernize developing countries near the equator, or those which can build high altitude launch pads.

Jumper said...

LarryHart, the current wrecking crew in power in NC not only seems to be nutz, they be nutz.

Jumper said...

It's better to be on a sensible space exploration program than to seem to be. I am against trillion dollar photo ops. Which a certain type of Mars or moon landing could devolve into.

David Brin said...

Jiminy Christmas. Locumranch was not only cogent but maybe 51% ... ur, um... right this time!

LH I keep being nagged to do the story of the Vanilla Needle.

Trump would want all the ceremony and pomp of the presidency… then LATER pick some prening reason to resign, or be impeached.

Acacia H. said...

I figured the microsatellites would possibly be powered through the solar sails and use semiconductor lasers to beam messages and data back to Earth. In theory, enough of the signal might reach us that a space-based telescope aimed at the star would capture the data from the signal.

The question is, of course, how to protect the electronics from cosmic radiation and ultra-cold temperatures. And how to protect sensors. And how to actually slow the craft or find a way to maneuver it, or have a sufficiently intelligent system inside it to know what to look for.

The better solution is a larger craft, a "mothership" of sorts, which when it reaches the other star system releases a swarm of smaller craft that it controls and which seek out asteroids and other small bodies, extracts components, and builds larger probes from which proper science can be performed. In essence, a Von Neumann Machine that doesn't replicate itself, so much, as build a small infrastructure by which it can explore that solar system and send back data. And then maybe at some point build several more "motherships" to be sent out to other stars, using in-system built lasers to accelerate those craft as well.

Then again, Dr. Brin might have hinted at that sort of thing with the latter half of "Existence" and the short story that predated it.

Rob H.

occam's comic said...

if you want to provide employment and/or help people living near the equator, spending huge amounts of money on manned space missions is about the least effective way achieving your goals.

Manned space exploration has to be justified on the merits of manned space exploration.

In my opinion manned space missions are more dangerous, much more expensive, have a poor return on investment and even inhibit the development of more useful space infrastructure.

Just imagine what could have been done if we had not spent 100 billion dollars+ on the space station/ space shuttle, and instead spent it on unmanned missions and infrastructure. We could have built several big guns (cannons) that could be launching satellites for less than space X and we could have been doing it sense the 1990's. We could have had robotic missions to every interesting moderately large (radius +100 km)body in the solar system. Plus tons of other great stuff. The way to get more bang for the buck is to get rid of Buck, Buck Rogers needs to go if we want to spend our money effectively.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Trump would want all the ceremony and pomp of the presidency… then LATER pick some prening reason to resign, or be impeached.

Hmmmm, it's probably not too early to market some "Impeach Trump!" bumber stickers.

Alfred Differ said...

@donzelion: I would never say we shouldn’t do the science, but I will argue that until we do the business, the science budget is trapped. Imagine an astronomer wanting to watch the heavens through a long, dark night at the South Pole, but in the latter half of Benjamin Franklin’s lifetime. How much money would have been required to establish the astronomer and his equipment there in 1760 or so? Proposing such a thing back then would have been about as silly as proposing a radio antenna farm on the back side of Luna today. Spend enough money and it could probably be done, but we won’t. We have all sorts of spiffy gadgets and wonderful people doing research at the South Pole today, but we can do this rather easily because we are immensely richer now than we were 250 years ago.

I left academic research and my thoughts of a traditional career path supporting space science in the mid-90’s. A few years before I had the pleasure of walking along a long corridor on the Caltech campus where I got to see spiffy big posters of space projects they had supported. It was inspiring to know this could be done and that I was preparing to offer my decades to more of it. Looking at those gorgeous images, though, I was hit with an epiphany. I could spend my entire life doing good work in the field and never fly real hardware in space. There were far more of us who wanted to make a glorious future happen than there was money to fund all the ideas. If I REALLY wanted to help, the correct thing to do was to get out of the field and work against the economic constraint. Lots of people think that constraint is one of political will, but I didn’t then and I’m even more convinced now. Public funding helps a lot, but opening the frontier to our civilization would do FAR, FAR more.

Civilization will move out there when we have an economic motivation to do so. That is already happening and I’m proud to say I’ve helped. I still love the science I was doing and what others are doing today, but I’m more deeply interested in how humanity migrates when it does and how we might use past lessons to open the space frontier wider for all of us. For example, in our previous migrations across the Earth, I don’t see a lot of evidence for large groups of people picking up stakes and moving very far from their former relatives. They DO cover large distances, but trade is common place even among the foragers and one can’t do that if one moves too far away. That suggests there might be a business need to establish a Luna colony if only to facilitate trade. Not much else draws us to Luna beyond its ability to shield us from radiation, but it might serve as a way point for some. It wouldn't be the first example of oddly placed cities.

Alfred Differ said...

My pick #0: Retain our inclination to dignify the work members of our community do AND keep them free to do it as they choose. Do this and the scientific method (s) will be preserved. We might learn some of what we know now, but we will recover it when we get around to it.

If there is a Mad Max scenario in our future, I suspect they will mine our archives that survive much like V. Vinge described for fallen civilizations trying to recover. As long as there is dignity to be found in the work and freedom to do the work, we will recover.

The thing to avoid is a silly notion of self-dependence. Along that path lies ~$3(+/- 2) /day poverty for all survivors.

Alfred Differ said...
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Alfred Differ said...

@occam’s comic: If SBSP gets built, it will probably be with military money. It would serve them like ARPANET did for crude command and control by providing crude electrical power in the field. Imagine a situation where the US has to do something stupid like fight an actual land war in Asia. Supply lines would be long and vulnerable. If electrical power could be beamed down to army units, certain supplies wouldn’t have to be shipped and we’d convert as much as we could to electric propulsion. If the event that convinced us to do this stupid thing was a Pearl Harbor like shock, we’d spend uncountable trillions of dollars in a flash and make this happen like other Cold War projects.

Vulnerability wouldn’t be a big issue. We’d replace what we lost. Any nation who thinks we can’t do that hasn’t understood the real lesson of US involvement in WWII.

As for manned vs unmanned space projects, I’ll just point out that we wouldn’t be having such a debate if the budget wasn’t trapped by its political source.

Alfred Differ said...

"I just wish everybody else could realize how much sense my philosophy makes."
- Darryl Perry - LP Presidential Candidate at 2016 LP Convention

Reported by Clare Malone at

This is what we in the LP have to abandon.
I can't think of a better way to describe our irrelevancy than this statement.

duncan cairncross said...

Re-Inflatable tower

The issue with long thin (high) structures is not material strength but "buckling"
The article did not say it but I assume that the Thoth tower would have to use active control to prevent buckling
Think in terms of outwards facing propellers or jet engines every 100 meters (or so) with a computerized active control system to keep the whole wobbly column perfectly vertical - this would also answer the questions about bad weather

Should work! - but it would fail if the active system went off-line

Unknown said...

"Just imagine what could have been done if we had not spent 100 billion dollars+ on the space station/ space shuttle, and instead spent it on unmanned missions and infrastructure. We could have built several big guns (cannons) that could be launching satellites for less than space X and we could have been doing it sense the 1990's. We could have had robotic missions to every interesting moderately large (radius +100 km)body in the solar system. Plus tons of other great stuff."

Yeah! You know, like the way that the Dawn exploration of Ceres has everyone all excited about seeing asteroids, or the way the news media hung on every moment of the New Horizons flyby of Pluto!

Oh, wait, that's right, that didn't happen. Because most people don't get excited about unmanned robot probes in space, even if they return valuable data, because there's no frisson of danger. Space geeks were thrilled by the way Curiosity landed on Mars, but most folks, even if they were made aware of it, just figured that if it didn't work, we'd just crashed another probe into Mars. Not the first time, you know? And it's not like any of the hardware is ever coming back to Earth anyway...

donzelion said...

@Duncan - I posted a link to another earlier article on the Tower, which included a number of problems raised by engineers and scientists, and possible responses by Thoth.

My eye was drawn to the sum of $10 billion (or $500 billion, depending which voice you believe). And also by the vast range of difference (the backers claim 30% savings on energy to launch from 20 km up - detractors suggest about 1% savings). I'm sure both sides can be asked to produce their methodologies, and that scientists and engineers can evaluate both of them.

@Alfred - "Civilization will move out there when we have an economic motivation to do so."

Concur generally - but sometimes, a seed can be planted even without any economic motivation. Some thrive, some fail. Sometimes the seed of an idea can change everything unexpectedly. That's why I'm shy about fixating upon ROI - at best, making it one among a number of considerations.

Ioan said...

Jonathan Sills,

To further extend your arguments. What was the economic return on Dawn of New Horizons? Compare the spinoff technologies from those two spacecraft to the spinoff technologies we got from Apollo.

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Donzelion
I had already looked at the article you referenced - insufficient sensible information to make any comment in there

The 1% and the 30% are possibly both correct!

The Space X rockets have a mass ratio of about 26:1 - so any savings in required energy make much more difference than you might expect

Also the rocket must be strong enough to survive the aerodynamic loads which increase with speed and then go down with air pressure
Starting from 20Km will reduce the aerodynamic loads and may enable a lighter rocket and a higher payload

occam's comic said...

Alfred, yes, i have heard of a military space based solar power satellite, and i think that it is too expensive even for the US military.

And as far as replacing military space infrastructure in a war time situation were you have an ongoing Kessler syndrome, caused by say the Russians or the Chinese, putting more stuff up in orbit would have a very good chance of making the situation worse, wouldn't it?

Johnathan, The space station has never generated a great deal of public excitement, it has not generated a great deal of new scientific discoveries nor technological breakthroughs, but it has been very expensive.
The space shuttle only generated a lot of public attention when if was first launched and when it blew up.
I would be willing to bet that ratio between money spent and positive public excitement unmanned missions would do much better than all the post apollo manned missions.

loan, why don't you compare Dawn and New Horizons to present day manned missions? The Apollo program ended 40 years ago. Is it because you know if you compare those missions to the space station the point i am making is obvious? The space station is hugely expensive and we have gotten very little in return (in terms of technology or science) for the money spent.

Jumper said...

I don't see much public excitement about McMurdo station either. Maybe long term science is the more valuable product. Long term is a difficult thing to analyze. Should we fund pure math?

occam's comic said...

Because the cost for funding pure math is so low (the cost of employing the mathematicians) and has a long proven track record of very valuable results we should absolutely be spending more money on pure math research. I think we would be hard pressed to find another area of research that has a better return on investment.

I mean just the payback form John Von Neumann's work as a mathematician should cover the expense of a large pure math research programs for a couple of centuries.

Jumper said...

Many fine links to read here on climate, communication, elections for sale:

David Brin said...