Wednesday, May 30, 2007

So What IS Their Mission...?

From a recent interview (courtesy of Space Daily):

GRIFFIN: Nowhere in NASA's authorization, which of course governs what we do, is there anything at all telling us that we should take actions to affect climate change in either one way or another. We study global climate change, that is in our authorization, we think we do it rather well. I'm proud of that, but NASA is not an agency chartered to quote "battle climate change."


Riddle me this, readers - can anyone point the Cynics to the actual authorization so we can see what NASA really IS supposed to be doing, according to Mr. Griffin's "If it's not in the Authorization, it's not our mission" criteria? Perhaps he can get them out of those silly manned space missions to nowhere while he's at it?

I don't care if you are in the "Global Warming is a crisis" camp or the "Global Warming is Hyped" camp - or, if you're in the Global Warming is a natural phenomenon camp for that matter. The issue I want to dig into here is what IS the mission of NASA? The organisation has many different arms - from the most well known and dysfunctional (Manned Space) to the often times brilliantly successful (robotic space - e.g., Hubble) to the virtually unknown by the masses (biology, aeronautics, etc). When I used to do strategic planning work with NASA back in my KPMG days, their "strategic plans" were a mishmash of different objectives and directions. I doubt much has changed, other than the lettering of Codes at NASA HQ.

The question at the root of all this is: Does NASA even know what it's "elevator pitch" mission is, and can anyone succinctly describe it here?

The soapbox is open, let's hear your ideas.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

In Space, No One Can Hear You Groan

Well, it appears our fine public servants at NASA have been hard at work in the CGI labs, creating a promotional video for the future theme park they intend to build on the Moon.

I'll leave aside for the moment my total disbelief that a meaningful sustainable lunar base will be built by NASA in my lifetime due to a whole range of economic issues which have been written about in previous entries.

Instead, I'd simply like to point out a couple of things:

First, to the geniuses at NASA who created this little promo trailer, trying to cash in on the hype of Hollywood: sorry, but the Transformers movie has a much cooler trailer. Oh, and I really think that if anyone is going to make a trailer of a space base, NASA would at least get it right and not include SOUND EFFECTS. For the love of God people, you do realise that space is a vacuum, right?

Second, to the general public out there that get sucked in by these sort of promotional vapor ware extravaganzas. Google "VentureStar". You'll see some really cool promo videos of the supposed successor to the Space Shuttle.

Computer simulations are easy.

Space is hard.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

One Year Later, A Refresher

A series of back and forth comments on a recent posting of mine ("Space Race 2.0? Hardly.") made me realise that, having reached our 1-year anniversary here at the Space Cynics...

Happy Birthday to Us
Happy Birthday to Us
Happy Birthday dear Space Cynics
Happy Birthday to Us...

Anyways: as I was saying, it being our one year anniversary, perhaps it's time for a quick primer for those who haven't been with us from the beginning (and can't be bothered to actually read the archives - you know who you are) and a refresher for those who simply have lost the plot as to what we Cynics actually believe and hold dear.

So, without further ado, here you go.

Development of outer space (this solar system, the galaxy, whatever) WILL likely happen some day by humanity. I say likely because we have to first win that race against self destruction that we seem so hell bent upon. Assuming that humanity manages to get past our adolesence, then developing the "final frontier" is inevitable.

That doesn't mean it will happen in our lifetimes.

The likelihood of lunar bases of any meaning, asteroid mining, L5 colonies, or any of that High Frontier gobbledegook (that's the scientific term) happening in the next 20-30 years is so vanishingly small even the Hubble Space Telescope can't see it. So get over it.

The same goes for massive space solar power satellites, an observatory on the far side of the moon, a meaningful Mars mission, etc.

The missing link, painfully bad analogies of the New World notwithstanding, is Cheap, Reliable, Reusable Access to Space (or, CRRATS). Without the ability to get things off Terra Firma easily and regularly, the markets (commercial ones, not just selling to NASA or the DoD) won't develop. WHEN it happens, however, it will be like any other new market where the cost of entry has dropped considerably - more applications, more entrants, inevitable successes and failures, etc.

Dennis Wingo, for instance, had a great concept with SkyCorp - build satellite components on the ground, assemble the satellite in orbit, so that it costs less and has a better reliability (no need for the fully assembled version to suffer the extremes of the launch regime when you can send it up in pieces...). Unfortunately, without an industry configured around such a model, and no way to regularly get those pieces into orbit, assemble them at a station, etc., we're stuck with the "Big Dumb Booster"(TM) approach.

Fanciful concepts of massive stations at GEO, or even a Space Elevator, ignore the reality that we can barely manage to assemble a station in LEO, which is tiny by comparison, and yet hugely expensive (and yes, many of the ISS costs were a waste, and there is virtually no amortisation of the NRE, but even still it is a ridiculously expensive way to go about things, building a station with overpriced launches).

We are cynical by experience, not because we are ill-informed. Combined we have decades of experience in a wide range of space-related businesses - so give us a little credit. That being said, to those of you who tune in from around the world to read our missives, thank you. It's nice to know we are being read, even if we are but a small, often drowned out by the kool-aid crowd, voice in the wilderness.

Which brings up another point - this "us vs. them" mantra that gets touted every now and then about how we need to develop space to make sure that the core values of the US - "democracy and freedom" (or insert whatever jingoistic babble floats your boat) - is what takes root in space, instead of the evil commies or terrorists or whatever.

Get over it.

If anything, the lack of collaboration on the ground amongst the peoples of the Earth bodes ill for the future of humanity in space, at least in an organised fashion. If we can't figure out how to play nice on the ground, it'd be hard to see how we'll last long in space. And we'd better figure that out, because the "we need a space colony to preserve humanity in case a big asteroid wipes out the planet" kool-aid group needs to realise that some sad little outpost on the moon or, worse, in orbit doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of maintaining the Homo Sapien line if Earth is wiped out. At least for the next 100 years.

And that, my friends, is all that matters.

Because we (the current generation of adults in America, anyways) has shown it has no real concern for our own grandchildren and the world (and DEBT) we are leaving to them, so why should we be concerned with the world 100+ years from now?

Sure, in a touchy-feely leave no impact kind of way this is important - but be sure that you recognise that the vast majority of humanity will continue to do what they do because the laws of inertia and conservation work on a human level as they do in the realm of physics. Wishing otherwise won't change that - and planning your business model around it is just the height of stupidity.

Friday, May 04, 2007

One Man Can Make A Difference

Congratulations, in this case, to two men.

First, to Rand Simberg, for posing the idea of a prize-driven contest to create a better astronaut glove. NASA took your idea, ran with it, and the contest was a success.

Second, to the winner of the contest: Mr. Peter Homer, an engineer in Maine who used that old Yankee ingenuity to get himself a $200,000 prize for coming up with a better glove.

And, third, to NASA - for a willingness to try new models, and in the process, help to stoke the engine of innovation at the grassroots level that is essential to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Godspeed, Wally

Just a brief note to mark the passing of one of the original Right Stuff rocketmen, astronaut Walter M. "Wally" Shirra Jr. Wally was one of the Mercury 7 team, as well as having flown in both the Gemini and Apollo programs.

No comment, no moralising, no pithy statements - just Godspeed, Wally, as you begin your next great voyage.


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Space Race 2.0? Hardly.

The internet this past week has been abuzz with stories of NASA vs. their old nemesis, the Russkies - this time about plans to return to the Moon, and how NASA has turned down Russian offers of cooperation on the mission. Speculators speculate that this is to "deny Russia access to an isotope in abundance under the moon's surface that many believe could replace fossil fuels and even end the threat of global warming."

I initially thought to just ignore this and other similar articles because they are written by journalists who are paid to produce, regardless of the actual nutritional value of the content they churn out. However, when this particular article made its way to the Motley Fool financial discussion boards, and people there started discussing this as if it were serious, I realised that the Kool-Aid problem is as real as ever. And so we don our trusty capes and swords and once more proceed into battle with the forces of stupidity.

Problem: there are so many things wrong with this NASA vs Russia for the future of He3 story it's hard to know where to start.

Let's stick with the basics, then:

1) We don't have the ability to mine the moon
2) We don't have the space vehicles to go to or from the moon, much less transship anything of significant mass.
3) The ISS as we know it won't be functional in another 15 years (i'll take wagers on that if anyone doubts me), and can't serve as a staging post for any such transshipment.

oh, and here's the real doozy:

4) We don't have a functional fusion reactor on Earth, so fuel for such a "reactor" is, as the article points out, the equivalent of medieval alchemy.

But hey, they get paid to write, so they'll write, even if it's nonsense. And we'll continue to be Cynics, even though we don't get paid to be.

p.s. - Happy 40th Birthday to my brother Baber. Technically it's still May 1 where you are, but here in Sydney it's already the 2nd.