How did we get here?

I’ve been having a great argument [1] with someone over on a blog that I frequent. The topic is “Where do we go from here?” and we aren’t speaking metaphorically or existentially; we are speaking of the next step for humans and exploration. Should we go to the Moon? Should we head for the asteroids? What about Mars? What direction should we take?

Naturally, there are a lot of factors to consider. But, before we do that, I’d like to spend a little time reviewing how we got here before moving on to where we want to go next. I want to do this because it will help explain why there are so many groups with divergent and entrenched views. And, by reviewing our history, we just might be able to avoid repeating it [2].

Though we could start in 1897, when Tsiolkovsky first wrote out the rocket equation that still governs travel in space. Or in 1926, when Godard launched his first rocket. Or in 1936, with the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (one of NASA’s oldest branches). But I’d like to start with September 12, 1962, because that was when John F. Kennedy put us irrevocably on the path to the Moon and unwittingly set the stage for the current troubles. As I’ve pointed out before, Kennedy’s speech put a limit on the amount of time we had to accomplish our goal: we had to be on the Moon within a eight years. And that limit meant that some paths (Earth Orbit Rendezvous [3] {EOR}, Direct Ascent [4] {DA}) were off the table and that the hardware those paths would require wouldn’t be made.

Instead, we settled for Lunar Orbit Rendezvous: put everything into space on one rocket and throw away most of the rocket once you are above the atmosphere. Put what remains in orbit around the Moon, then descend to the Moon in a smaller rocket. Throw away most of that on the way back up and rendezvous with the command/service module in lunar orbit. Head for home where you throw away the service module before plunging back to Earth in a one-use only command module. To put it mildly, it wasn’t the most sustainable path. But it got us to the Moon first and it got us there before our deadline.

And that’s when everything went “sproing!” You see, the folks at NASA and at the aerospace companies that worked their brains into peanut butter to get to the Moon were nerds, which is to say were too darn trusting [5]. We believed the folks in Congress when they said that we’d get at least 20 Apollo missions. We believed them when they said we’d be building a Moonbase and heading for Mars and starting a space station. And we did this even though, at every possible turn, both Congress and the various presidential administrations have betrayed us [6].

So the people who were in favor of building a Moonbase and exploring the Moon for resources and (more importantly {to us, anyway})  for science (we’ll call them Moon First) were betrayed when Nixon cancelled the Apollo program in order to build the space shuttle and launch our first space station (which were the dreams of the EOR crowd). And the EOR crowd was betrayed when Carter stretched out the shuttle development long enough to double the costs and let Skylab fall to the ground simply because we had nothing that could rescue it [7]; the final blow was when Bush41 killed the space station that they’d been promised in order to pay for a Mars program. But then the Martians were betrayed in turn when Clinton killed the Mars program in order to pay for a space station (but not the science needed to make it interesting). And then the EOR crowd was betrayed again when Bush43 decided to make the Moon Firsters’ dreams come true by going back to the Moon. But then the Obama administration decided that we really should head for the asteroids instead as a stepping stone for Mars – but Congress was still torn between a lingering DA lobby and a die-hard group of Mon Firsters. And there we remain today [7].

The result of this battling and battering back and forth has been the creation of four entrenched groups, each of which has some measure of logic behind it [9]. There is a group that wants to abandon NASA entirely and use the money to explore “inner space” (i.e., the oceans) instead; we’ll call them “Earth Now”. This group wouldn’t mind keeping the ISS (it is, after all, a great place to watch the oceans from), but they don’t want any deep space exploration. Next is the Moon First crowd. As their name implies, they want to explore the Moon first and then (if the budget supports it) go on to the other places in the Solar System. The third group is the Mars Next team; their argument is that we’ve already explored the Moon and we should go to Mars next. Finally, there are the folks who think that the key to living in space is hidden in the asteroids; we’ll call them the Rock Jocks.

As I said before, each of these groups can actually make a good case. And each of these destinations has benefits. Bu they all also have drawbacks and limitations [10]. Only by considering all aspects of the various options can we make a rational decision on what we want to do next, where we want to go from here. And that, after all, is why we are here.

John

[1] Used in the exact scientific sense of “He’s brought up some good points and clarified some of my errors, and has generally pushed me to think through the problem in more depth.” One of these days, I need to buy him a beer.

[2] But I’m not hopeful. Have you seen who is in Congress lately?

[3] Remember when the Gemini missions practiced “mating” with the Agena? That was intended to be practice for the Earth Orbit Rendezvous program: NASA would launch the astronauts on one rocket and the main craft on another. They’d go into Earth orbit, rendezvous, and then head off for the Moon. Von Braun preferred this plan because it was safer (any problems would happen close to Earth) and it would allow them to build a space station right away. But it would take longer to get the vehicles tested, and that put it outside of the eight year deadline, so it was dropped.

[4] Remember when NASA said they wanted a whopping big rocket that they called a “heavy launch vehicle”? Right now, it is called the SLS [i], but back then it was called Nova. This bruiser would have put one million pounds into orbit (the equivalent of four Saturn Vs or eighteen Space Shuttles). That was enough mass to allow a direct path to the Moon complete with astronauts and a reusable command module.

[5] I say this as a professional nerd myself. We alway do this and it always blows our minds when the sudden but inevitable betrayal [ii] happens.

[6] Usually by promising one group that their dream will come true, but at the cost of some other group’s.

[7] And Reagan did them no favor when he killed further development of the Space Shuttle in order to pay for a space station that he knew would never be built.

[8] I am willing to bet cash money that, no matter what else happens, one of the first things the next administration will do is change the direction of NASA. Again.

[9]  As the situation stands, the only people benefiting from having four entrenched groups are the politicians (which may be part of why our policy has been as stupid as it has been); they can play one group against the other in order to ensure that whatever happens, the pork will stay securely in their district.

[10] For example, the best resources on the Moon are located at the poles which makes them difficult to access (but not impossible). And most of the nearby asteroids have water, but it is in the form of hydrous minerals instead of the easier to use water ice.

[i] “Space Launch System” if you are in NASA; “Senate Launch System” if you are outside of it.

[ii] Glowing geek points for the reference!

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4 thoughts on “How did we get here?

  1. For me it wasn’t a great argument. Right off the bat you took an arrogant, insulting tone. It has taken me weeks to show you stuff you should have grasped in minutes. And you’re still not getting it.

    I’m growing weary of investing hours of my time showing you cites and math all the while you’re calling me stupid. So instead of providing cites I will suggest you Google LRO. LRO’s TLI was in the neighborhood of 3.1 km/s. After traveling 4.5 days, LRO did an LOI (Lunar Orbit Insertion) burn at apogee dropping it into an elliptical orbit about the moon. Achieving LRO’s 50 km altitude polar orbit took a number of LOI burns totalling 1.3 km/s — not a great deal more than the total of my LOI burns: 1.1 km/s.

    You keep insisting a polar lunar orbit takes an extra 2 km/s. Of if not an extra 2 km/s, weeks added to the ToF (Time of Flight). This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    • For me it wasn’t a great argument. Right off the bat you took an arrogant, insulting tone. It has taken me weeks to show you stuff you should have grasped in minutes. And you’re still not getting it.

      What it took weeks to do was for you to back up your statements with something other than “trust me”. As for the tone, please remember that I am by nature a mirror.

      I’m growing weary of investing hours of my time showing you cites and math all the while you’re calling me stupid.

      Given that I haven’t called you stupid, you are once more arguing a strawman. What I have done is call certain ideas stupid (and I note in passing that you were the first to start slinging mud – so why are you complaining?).

      So instead of providing cites I will suggest you Google LRO. LRO’s TLI was in the neighborhood of 3.1 km/s. After traveling 4.5 days, LRO did an LOI (Lunar Orbit Insertion) burn at apogee dropping it into an elliptical orbit about the moon. Achieving LRO’s 50 km altitude polar orbit took a number of LOI burns totalling 1.3 km/s — not a great deal more than the total of my LOI burns: 1.1 km/s.

      And those took place over a period of ten days. As I noted in the post on lunar exploration, you can trade off time for delta vee.

      You keep insisting a polar lunar orbit takes an extra 2 km/s. Of if not an extra 2 km/s, weeks added to the ToF (Time of Flight). This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

      Not according to the folks at NASA.

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