Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I F#€&'n Forgot to Title my Space Post!

Yesterday, the great Andrew Leon wrote a blog post about why we have to move out into the solar system. It’s a post about dreaming big, and about cats - but lately most of his posts involve cats in some way. Of course that reminds me of the story of John Scalzi and his experiment of combining the two largest internet memes for a post by strapping a bunch of bacon to his cat and taking pictures.

The result of his experiment was one of the most popular posts in the history of the internet.

So, I think Andrew is trying to get the cat people engaged in space exploration – well played, Andrew, well played.

Now, as I’ve lamented in the past, I don’t really have the time to blog properly, well, I do have time I suppose, but that is time that I tend to spend doing other things, reading, writing, artsy stuff, whatever. I think I’m proving with each and every post that I could never be a journalist, or columnist, or reviewer.

But I can be a rambler. No links, not citations, just me saying stuff. Yes, that is my call in this world.

So, where what I? Oh yes, our call to action. To dream of the stars.

I’ve spent a lot of my time in the past decade or three thinking on this topic. Of reading on this topic, and here are my thoughts:

We will never get off our planet in a meaningful way. Ever.*

Why? The bottom line is that it’s all about money. Even with a fortune in minerals out there  locked up in Near Earth Asteroids (should be enough iron, gold, nickel, etc., to wreck virtually every market we have here on earth) there is the startup costs of getting out there. Right now it’s in the neighborhood of  $2,000 or $3,000 per pound for SpaceX (about $10k per pound in the space shuttle days) just to get something into low earth orbit. Doing some quick math means that getting mining equipment (and workers) to something that might be millions of miles away (instead of 220) is going to cost well into the billions, and possibly into the trillions, of dollars. Since the first moon landing the U.S. has stopped throwing unlimited resources at space exploration. That well has all but dried up.

Cost to get here? Many Millions of Dollars
And what company is going to put up tens of billions or more in startup costs for something like this? Not any publicly held companies, that’s for sure. No private companies have the capital even if they wanted to. We may get orbiting hotels made meteor resistance balloons, and other one-off events from corporate endeavors, but real cutting edge exploration… I doubt that we’ll ever see it done without governments subsidizing the thing.

That leaves governments. The U.S. spends almost nothing on space exploration,** when compared to social services or defense, you can’t even see the NASA budget on a graph. Yet they are on the chopping block every year as ‘pork’ that needs to be cut out of the budget.

Cost of Getting Here? GAJILLIONS of Dollars!
That means they spend year after year making ludicrous promises as to what they can deliver and giving projections for spending that is a fraction of what they actually need. The space shuttle was a total disaster from the beginning if you look at what they promised, a launch per month at a cost per pound that was unheard of, you’d see why folks in congress don’t like NASA accountants very much. Something similar happened with the ISS (International Space Station), the U.S. committed to it internationally, then got stuck funding it later when other nations *coughrussiacough* decided not to. Add to that the cost overruns that were billions and billions of dollars, and we have this huge floating money pit in space.

And NASA has done this with almost every project it’s been a part of since Apollo. They seem to be hoping that congress will engage in that gambler’s mentality of being so financially committed that they don’t stop the funding for fear of losing everything.

And the budget gets cut almost every year, it’s not like they’re fooling anyone.

So I don’t think the governments of the world will enable us to be living in L5 habitats, or domed cities on Mars, or floating cities over Venus. If there is a hope, it’s that within the next 50 years that we can build a space elevator. We don’t have the materials science down to actually build the darned thing, but we’re close. If the world could have a joint location that they agreed upon and all the powers that be contribute to defray costs, then we might have a way to reach orbit cheaply. From there, the rest is easy.

Then, the dreamers that Andrew talked about can have their chance. Then we get the old west type of land grants and such that makes exploration and migration really possible. Much has been made of how China once had a naval fleet that was the envy of the world, then within a generation they dismantled it and spent the next few centuries looking inward and dealing with problems at home. When the europeans rolled in much later they found folks that were a mere shadow of their ancestors. I think I’ve made the comparison here on this blog myself and won't belabor the point. Instead, I'd like to put a positive spin on it - I’d like to think that we went to the moon before just to see if we could, but the next time we go, we’re not pulling a stunt, but will be going to live.

*I didn’t mean that.

** Alastair Reynolds, my favorite sci-fi author, states that we spend more on chocolate than we do space exploration. We get an astounding bang for our buck with NASA, the ESA, etc., I don’t mean to give these guys too hard a time, I’m generally shocked at the awesome missions that are completed by them – mostly robotic – but that is beside the point here, which is HUMAN exploration.


Brinda said...

Scalzi is a hoot on Twitter. I've only read Old Man's War.

Chocolate is a good investment. haha.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Ironically when the government was pouring money into space exploration, our country wasn't so far in debt. That's food for thought.
It probably will be years before someone has the that kinds of money to sink into exploration or mining. But the analogy that we've turned inward - you are so right.

Tonja said...

I think it will take the approach of a world-ending meteor to make the government(s) and private sector build the escape vessel. Wasn't that a movie?

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

Instead of blah-blahing about the nobility of space exploration and science and crap like that, NASA needs to tell Congress that there's a fortune in minerals out there and who do you want to get it, the Chinese? Cuz that's what's going to happen if we just sit out duffs forever. You know be less Carl Sagan and more Gordon Gekko.

M.J. Fifield said...

I saw Total Recall. I'm not sure I want to live in a domed city on Mars.

Andrew Leon said...

One of the things that bothers me about all of this is that there are actually people that argue against asteroid mining and stuff like that because it will devalue our current resources. And, you know, if it was just to get pretty baubles, like gold, I could see that. However, platinum, one of the resources frequently talked about, is necessary for so much of our electronics and one of the things that causes certain types of items to cost so much. Think of what we could do with a readily available source of platinum! Which makes me glad they decided against minting that coin.

James Cameron is one of the guys backing Planetary Resources, and he has tons of money, so I'm hoping...

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

I'd like to see us go to Mars. I think it will happen someday when the conditions and money are right.

Trisha said...

That poor kitty must have been washing itself for hooooours after the bacon incident. hahah. I have a friend who eats fast food and then pats her cat so that the cat smells fast food on its fur. It washes itself for many an hour afterwards.

I wanna go into space! ;)

Nicole said...

It's always fun to dream about making it to that next level in space. I hope someday it can be possible.

Jo said...

I do hope you are wrong, I think Man needs to get into space. I don't suppose I will be around to see it, but hopefully it will happen one day when we stop having wars. I guess that's a joke.

vic caswell (aspiring-x) said...

these numbers make me sad.
thanks for killing my dreams, mr. rusty.


Briane P said...

What I think is going to happen is we are going to be forced into it.

Population pressures, fossil fuel problems, wars, or a good ol' fashioned space race: one of those is going to get us to decide that we have to do it. That's how our society works right now; we do things only when we must and put off the hard stuff, and we do remediation rather than prevention.

After all, it's cheaper to hope the hurricane doesn't hit, and then pay to fix it, than it is to build a seawall to protect one of your biggest cities from a hurricane... in the short run. And on a spot-basis.

So here's to the greenhouse effect! Keep using hairspray, make the Earth uniinhabitable, and our kids will fly to Jupiter because they have to.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go have this thick layer of cynicism surgically removed.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm reading Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku right now and he says something very much along this vein about getting into space--even mentioning space elevators.

Deborah Walker said...

Debs for President Mars. You know it makes sense.