The Price of Space

Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs. To me, regardless of any other benefit from the space program (and there are many), that ability to inspire a future generation of engineers made the entire program worthwhile.

We live in a world where kids’ role models are more likely to be sports or entertainment figures that have regular visits to police stations, jails, and rehab centers. The value of having role models that “do science” is invaluable.

This time of the year is a dark time for NASA missions, though. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I crew (Grissom, White, and Chaffee) died in a fire. The investigation led to NASA limiting how much Velcro you can use in a cabin and moving away from pure oxygen in the cabin.

Then, on January 28th, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger on mission STS-51L had a tragic launch that killed everyone onboard including the first private citizen to fly, Christa McAullife. That investigation found that several problems with the O-rings in the solid rocket boosters caused a leak that damaged the external tank which then produced a huge fireball and caused the shuttle to break up from extreme aerodynamic stress.

Finally on February 1st, 2003, another tragedy, this time with the space shuttle Columbia (STS-107). Foam insulation from the external tank damaged the shuttle’s heat protection and the vessel burned up on re-entry, scattering debris over several states.

Every year around this time, NASA remembers these astronauts and other crew who have died in training accidents that aren’t quite as famous. It makes you sad to think of these men and women who died in these early days of mankind reaching for the stars. But, if you think about it, people die every day for less. It is a rare day that I don’t hear on the news about someone killed in a car accident. Perhaps they were driving to work or coming home from a meal. They certainly weren’t going to Earth orbit or the moon.

So what makes these deaths of such public interest? I think part of it is we feel like the astronauts are heroes and role models. Their deaths affect us more than some random stranger’s. Beyond that, it is human nature to fixate on the spectacular. A school bus crashing will make the news. But a passenger jet crashing will make the news for days and spark a lengthy investigation.

Car crashes don’t make us all work from home. School bus accidents don’t turn us all to homeschooling. The space programs will go on and–in fact–the recent trend to going to commercial spaceflight may have big benefits for the hacker community.

Already we’ve seen a big increase in the number of CubeSats launched. Getting a piece of hardware in orbit would have been almost impossible for a small group or individual in 1965 (there were rare exceptions). Now it is practically commonplace. Riding those first commercial manned flights will be costly. But once they are successful, that cost will come down. More people will explore space and learn things we can’t even imagine today. I can’t help but think that the fallen astronauts would find this a fitting legacy.

Who will want to go to space? Dreamers. Poets. Artists. Of course, too, will be us hackers. I don’t know who will be the first hacker in space (or, at least, the first hacker in space not being paid by a government). But I’d bet it will still be someone reading this right now. What would you do if it were you?

61 thoughts on “The Price of Space

  1. While great strides have been made in remote off world research and doing useful things in orbit the fact remains that as a culture we seem more willing to invest funds into entertainment projects that provide the illusion of human space exploration than we are willing to to do making them come true.

    1. +1 interwebs for this good sir. Also, the level of said entertainment in the last decade has reached such lows that it is having the opposite effect, scaring off educated scifi fans with all the BS “stories”, flat characters, very bad CG, and overly used special effects etc.
      RIP SCIFI.

      1. SCIFI has always been a niche with BS “stories”, flat characters, very bad CG< and overly used special effects. The last 10 years are no different from the last 50 in that regard.

        It would probably be a close debate on whether or not feature length films, on average, are better now then previous decades. But in television and other short-form media there is no debate. This current decade is absolutely exploding with well made TV/Web content.

    2. Well isn’t that more realistic though? I mean Joe Average isn’t going to ever go to space, but he will seek entertainment in his actual life.

      Plus it’s not like NASA doesn’t get a sizable amount of money.

      “NASA has just received a significant boost in the agency’s current budget after both chambers of Congress passed the $1.1 Trillion 2016 omnibus spending bill this morning, Friday, Dec. 18
      As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounts to nearly $19.3 Billion – an outstandingly magnificent result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier this year.

      This budget represents an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.”

      So there.

      1. Well I was specifically referring to support for maned missions. When NASA was going to the Moon, I believed I would see a permanent base there and one on Mars well within my lifetime. Now in my mid sixties, I know I won’t see either. It is true we were a bit naïve back then and did not consider the fact that there is little economic incentive for such projects, or believed that ones would emerge, but it is still sad to see the public mood shift largely toward indifference, at least with the majority.

  2. I would like to see that the USA spends more money on space (and other) research, and less on bombing pseudorandom countries. No need to look far for the money: military spending in the USA outstrips all other countries combined. Past American successes in aerospace and other technology inventions are one of the most positive aspects of American influence on the world. We want to see more of that America, with positive role models like scientists and astronauts in the forefront. For your own youth also, it would be better to have another “Sputnik crisis” that would spur real education, instead of dumbification of masses with FB and “celebrities”.

    1. We did both in the 1960’s. In fact, a good portion of the “cost” of a military action today was paid for back then. Check the dates on the munitions and trucks and planes. Even smart bombs are often 60’s and earlier bombs fitted with new fins and a nose sensor, very much a hacker approach.

      1. By the way, I have Mission Specialist and Pilot Astronaut applications from around 1976. The Pilot application required 2000 hours in high performance jet aircraft, which is a lot, meaning they could only come from an active military.

      2. Our nuclear arsenal is pretty much the same thing, old mechanical technology that they occasionally refurbish with (supposedly) improved electronic systems. But the code for the control systems is still stored on 8″ floppies.

      3. I would say that most of the weapons in service today date back to the 80’s. Unfortunately, some of them were also made in the 80’s (late 80’s). As for aircraft, most are from the 70’s and/or the 80’s. The only aircraft that is more modern is the JSF, and it’s from the acquisition reform era (the mid 90’s), and an expensive toy that does not do any one thing very well. I digress, however.

        The thing with military R&D is that people find dual uses for damn near everything. Take the ARPAnet as an example. It was developed as a survivable military communications network. Now it’s a delivery mechanism for movies, cat videos, and pornography. It is also still a military survivable communications network.

        GPS is used mostly for precision timing and turn-by-turn navigation, and people freak out when the C/A signal timing is off by 13 microseconds, even though it has no effect on the (military) end user P/N signal. GPS was, and continues to be, paid for by military funding sources. The constellation is run by the USAF out of a base in Colorado.

        One of the large pushes to get solid state computers small and cheap was to support ICBM’s in the 60’s and 70’s that weren’t radio controlled (radio controlled ICBMs is the reason why spacecraft comms was still on the MCTL when I was interning at JPL back in 2007-2009). The military poured tons of money into developing a computer small enough to fit in a Titan or a Minuteman. NASA poured a ton of money into the control computers on their birds. The results were run with by the industry and turned into commercial minicomputers, and then commercial microcomputers.

        None of this exists in a vacuum. Money spent on R&D has a net positive return for some things, it only takes about 50 years for the returns to show up. Thus, very few companies in modern times are willing to spend the money and invest the effort when the payback period is so long.

        I’ll get off my soapbox now.

        One additional thing that you might find interesting: A large number of the weapons have been hacked together back in the day.

        Example 1 – Rocket motors: Ever wondered why tactical rocket motors are only in a small number of sizes? Partially this is because of reuse of previous form factors. Originally, the sizes of rocket motors was based around what diameters of seamless oil pipe were available. The pipeline pipe was the cheapest, most readily available source of high pressure, seamless steel pipe for use as a rocket motor casing. All of the WWII rockets were based around it, and this is why we have the diameters that we do: 2.75″ (mighty mouse), 3.5″ (FFAR), 5″ (HVAR/Holy Moses), 7″, 11.75″ (Tiny Tim), 13.5″, all common pipeline diameters. [as an aside, most of the early US tactical rocket motors have entertaining code names. this is because they were mostly developed and built at China Lake by folks from CalTech during the war. This is also why the Lake still has a bit of the hacker culture left, it was baked in from the beginning]

        Example 2 – Skipper II: Back in the 80’s, there was a hole in the Soviet ship defenses identified, Rather than spin up a whole, expensive acquisition program to develop a specific weapon for this application, the engineers at the Lake kludged together a wonderful little hackey thing. They bolted a couple of obsolete rocket motors to a Mk 82 fitted with an obsolete Paveway guidance kit. The whole thing was essentially free, because all the stuff was already paid for, and it was barely enough to exploit the gap in the Soviet defenses, but it worked well enough to force the Soviets to spend the equivalent of several billion dollars to plug the gap in their defenses..

    2. The pseudo random bombing of countries (AKA: Deadly Enemies) allows YOU to spew random pseodo-truth about a word you grossly misunderstand.. These people we bomb are, & have been killing Americans (& alies) for centuries. President Jefferson sent Maries INT Tripoli over 200 years ago! Same as it ever was…. Essential kills!

      1. No… we (speaking as an American) have a habit of going to war with random countries (usually full of brown people with a far lower tech level). …it’s like the Bill Hicks bit about Desert Shield/Storm- “Our Elite Special Forces Intelligence showed they were stockpiling weapons”; “Oh really? Where’d this intel come from?; “Well… … … … um… … We looked at the reciept. But as soon as that check clears we’re goin’ in. What time’s the bank open? …8? …We’re goin’ in at 9.”

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ubyby3ui4MA (7:20-8:30 is America)

      2. My friend, you can bomb them ten times more … you will just create more enemies, and take more dollars out of your pockets. Besides, millions of those killed by US bombs were civilians. Their killing cannot be justified by any means.

    3. I read a magazine (Omni?) article by Ray Bradbury.

      The article was a response to critics of the Space Program that the money it spends would be better off helping people on Earth (food, housing, education…).
      His point was at least use 1 percent of the money for betterment of mankind for space exploration, for if we did solve all the world’s problems, then what? At least an active space program gives us something to look forward to in our earthly existence.

    4. “bombing pseudorandom countries”
      No, every country we have bombed pretty much had it coming, including the Axis powers in WWII and Germany in WWI. Nowhere close to random.

      “military spending in the USA outstrips all other countries combined”

      Wrong. According to the “Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,” total world spending is 1.776 Trillion. US spending is 610 billion. That’s 34% of the world’s total.

      “Past American successes in aerospace and other technology inventions are one of the most positive aspects of American influence on the world.”

      I agree. US military spending has also resulted in many helpful advances in aviation, computers, GPS, etc. Without the US military, we’d all be saying “sieg heil.”

      Remember, if we had not fought the Revolution in America, we’d all be speaking English.

      1. It is grossly hypocritical for anyone in the West to take a morally ascendant tone over the U.S.’s military activities living as we all do under that nation’s protection. Furthermore we have also enjoyed the benefit of having the luxury in many cases of not needing to engage in as much military spending as we would have because they were. I shutter to think what it would have taken my country, Canada, with its vast size and small population to defend itself by ourselves in the post war era and what the broader consequences of what that would have meant. The same goes for a few other nations I can think of.

        1. I do not see how you reason that “all” live under americas protection. Your argument would make some sense if you had said “NATO” members. I can assure you that a lot of people view america as an aggressor, not witout reason in some cases. The sorry state of Iraq today is directly caused by american “liberation” and Bush era scapegoat hunting. So by all means, feel free to admire your southern cousins but please try to do some sanity checks before you post in threads.

          1. I wrote “those in the West” and not “all.” It implied NATO as well as other allies who are as close, and my observation stands for them. That does not imply that I, or anyone among those necessary has to agree with every aspect of US policy, however we should never forget that given the choices of dominant Great Powers that emerged from the ashes of WWII, those that were in the U.S. sphere of influence generally fared better. Was it all perfect for everyone? No it was not, but those countries that did thrive (like mine, and others) have no business holding up clean hands claiming moral superiority. That’s the point I was making.

  3. Design a vehicle that would use solar power to compress the Martian atmosphere into dry ice and, with a glow plug, drive that thing like a bat out of hell to Mount Vesuvius. The glow plug will heat a small portion of the dry ice to turn it into a working fluid of compressed CO2 that can run the vehicle for longer that the batteries can. Also, the system can work at night to generate power by basically using CO2, which is already abundant on Mars, into part of a cold battery system.

    I know. Silly idea but it’s certainly within the realm of possibilities.

          1. Am I reading here that you think that converting electricity to heat, then heat to locomotion, will be more efficient than converting electricity to locomotion?

            Can we please stop getting the Slashdot crowd in here? Their presence is not improving the discussions.

        1. So you want to use photovoltaic panels to convert solar power into electrical power. You then want to use electromechanical pumps to convert electrical power into mechanical power (compressed gas) for storage. Then, at night, you suggest turning the compressed gas back into electrical power with some sort of electromechanical turbine? Releasing a compressed gas causes the gas to cool substantially, which minimizes efficiency.

          Each conversion has some inefficiency. I think you will find that going solar->battery->usable energy is a LOT more efficient than what you suggest, and it doesn’t add tons of points for mechanical failure to occur.

          Study the surface and find whatever minerals we can use to make batteries with (and solar panels).

          Of course, sending a nuclear power source would help get the ball rolling.

          1. That’s why there’s a glow plug. It will help to keep the gas at the right temperature to counteract that. The battery will also be charged at the same time. It will provide some of its power to the glow plug. Aslo, the gas wouldn’t be released rapidly, rather it will be released slowly. UPS already have this on their trucks so I don’t see why it can’t work on Mars.

    1. Still need lots of oxygen to burn those fuels. Martian atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. There isn’t enough to sustain any human exploration, much less power any system based on burning hydrogen or hydrocarbon based fuels. That why I suggested compressing the CO2. It’s already there and we already use such technologies based on compressed air such as with UPS using it on their delivery trucks.

      1. What about on Titan with its mostly methane atmosphere? Could engines be ‘fueled’ with oxygen, drawing in just enough ‘air’ to combust with carefully metered oxygen?

        What about for light and heating? An oxygen fed Bunsen burner?

    2. Oil ?
      Hydrogen ? You mean water.

      Oxygen is no problem, there must be large amount of Iron Oxide in the soil (for Mars to be Red), use solar energy to either extract oxygen from the soil or by cracking it’s carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere.

      The real problem is Hydrogen, it can only be got from water and Mars probably only has that concentrated at the poles. With water you can use solar energy to to split it into Hydrogen and Oxygen. Methane (CH4) could also be made with access to water. Large amounts of energy (from the sun) and water are key to survival on Mars.

      1. We could use CO2 based lasers to sintering the soil itself to build plates that could be use build structures for housing on Mars. The gases released from this could be collected and filtered to derive the oxygen out of it for breathable air. If we could develop a way to separate the iron oxide out of the soil directly, we could get enough metals to build vehicles like the one I described earlier. We’ll need enough supplies for a temporary stay while everything else is built. Once that’s done, it’s onto extracting the water that’s already there to help continue the cycle till we get a more permanent settlement.

  4. “Many engineers of a certain age have one thing in common: Their early interest in science and engineering came from watching the US and Russian space programs.”

    Yup young people these days have been raised in an age when space exploration has been abandoned in large-part and being a “Nerd” will only get you bullied. And then there is how bad the U.S. public education system has become. How far we’ve fallen…

  5. the first hacker in space? Hacks in space have already been performed… Apollo 13 anyone? And the Russian space station Mir was one big hack; barely held together with rubber bands and paperclips

      1. Never mind the rebooting, the docking was feat literally never been done before… it had no power and thus no attitude control, docking to something like that in full manual mode is hard…
        They had to use a (back then) new military handheld laser rangefinder, that was lasing through a view port. (also a testament to how well the LPR-1 is designed and built :D)

  6. When people say stuff like this I say either a) you’re a Troll, b) you’re a nut job or c) both. Today I think it’s C. The least you could do is provide any sort of evidence to your claim, considering my family personally worked on many of the projects listed that would imply my family members are liars or our government is great at hiding conspiracies. Neither of which I think are particularly true, unless the whole Edward Snowden/NSA thing was just disinformation.

    1. I love these nutjobs cannot even be consistent on the “reason” we did not goto the moon. One claims rockets do not work in a vacuum. Another says the Van Allen belts will kill all humans who pass through. My favorite is the Apollo landings were shot on a sound stage on Mars, because the aliens would not let us land on the moon.

      The one that claims rockets cannot work in a vacuum cannot stand the concept of Dish Network and GPS – the signals must be “bouncing off the ionosphere”. These nutjobs cannot be convinced by facts – in fact they become entrenched when you give them facts.

      I also vote Annie is both. Sad, really. And we have a rapper telling people the Earth is flat. Really shows how the Mercan educational has failed an entire generation.

      1. On a related note, I saw a true-color picture of the moon surface from a chinese probe the other day.
        So I’m looking at it and think nice picture, and then remember that the ‘fake moonlanding’ crowd often points to the inconsistent shadows on the moonwalk pictures, shadows that did not all point in the same direction.
        So I look at that chinese probe picture and lo and behold, rocks in the right 20% of the picture have their shadow and lit part reversed from the other part of the picture.

        So I’m a bit confused now, what’s with the moon and its shadow inconsistencies, across the decades and across nations.

        1. Cheap inferior Chinese knock-off fake moon pictures. :-). (That was a smiley. Flame off, please.)

          Mythbusters did a show on the supposedly moon pictures, and they were able to duplicate the shadows with different angles, even with a light source far enough away that they “should have been” all in the same direction. The key was the slope of the ground that the shadows fell on. I know that sounds wrong – they were able to duplicate (i.e., fake) a picture to prove that the original wasn’t fake – but they were just trying to refute the claims about the shadows, and were successful. So that doesn’t prove that the original pictures are real, but it does prove that you can’t use the shadow evidence to prove that they aren’t real.

        2. To me the mythbuster moon landing special made me for the first time actually doubt the moon landing, it was so ‘managed’ by NASA and they so avoided certain things and took weak incomplete ‘explanations’ as solid proof that I suddenly started to wonder why the hell they would do that.
          Now realistically I know there are man-made objects on the moon, I mean you can’t fake that reflector and such. But nevertheless, there must be a reason why they would make a very shaky presentation like they did for mythbusters.

  7. The list of the dead should include the three Scaled Composite employees killed on 26 July 2007 during a test of the next generation rocket engine: Todd Ivens, Eric Blackwell and Charles ‘Glenn’ May.

    It also does not include the military personnel (mainly pilots) killed in various experimental aircraft in the X-series (which included one death of a pilot of an X-15: Michael James “Mike” Adams, 15 November 15, 1967).

    Ad Astra!

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