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Wave the Moon, and Mars, goodbye…

kiss m m gb

I’ve watched some depressing things in my life. The scene in Babylon 5 where the great space station is ripped apart by internal explosions… poor Dumbo’s little trunk snaking up to touch his mother’s trunk through the bars of that prison truck, both of them in tears… the Enterprise dying, in flames, as she fell out of the Genesis Planet’s sky… England playing Australia in the Edgebaston Ashes Test Match…

But nothing, and I mean Nothing, comes close to how depressing it felt watching the final public meeting of the Augustine Commission.


It was like watching a post mortem, a funeral and a wake all rolled into one, and at the end I would have slit my wrists with a piece of jagged glass, if my hands hadn’t been clenched so tightly into fists of despair I couldn’t move them.

Let’s rewind. The Augustine Commission, as you probably know, was tasked by President Obama to find a way – a new way, a bold way, a practical way – forwards for NASA which, most people agree, has rather lost its way recently. More specifically, the manned spaceflight side of NASA. The unmanned side – the side that designs, launches operates and flies spaceprobes and robots – has been having a great time of late, and there can be very few people now who aren’t aware that there are incredibly succesful unmanned spaceprobes operating on and around Mars, around Saturn and on their way to Pluto. Pictures from the twin Mars Exploration Rovers and the Cassini spacecraft are literally everywhere. It’s a golden age of unmanned planetary exploration, that’s for sure. But the manned spaceflight side of NASA? In a mess. With the space shuttle coming up for retirement soon, and its proposed replacement, the Orion capsule, not going to be ready to fly for several years after the last shuttle mission ends, the US faced a bleak period of “no access to space” for its astronauts, during which they’d have to rely on cadging lifts up to the space station from other countries. Rather embarrassing for the country that, 40 years ago last month, put people on the Moon, something no other nation has done.

So, the Augustine Commission was set up by President Obama and given the job of finding some new ways to reinvigorate the manned space exploration program. The Commission has been extremely busy, and has done a fantastic job, I think, of involving as many people, parties and organisations as possible. They’ve used all the new “social media” tools, like Twitter and Facebook, to draw people into their discussions, in the hope of making their report and recommendations as informed as possible. They’ve invited people to write to them, to email them, to just get involved, and many, many people have. One of my online friends, Keri Bean – “aggieastronaut” to her tweeting friends – actually attended one of the Commission meetings and addressed it, as “a member of the public”, and did a fantastic job. I was very proud of her!

Yesterday, after much behind-the-scenes deliberation and discussion, the Commission held its final public meeting, to explain how it had whittled down the list of “options” it would be putting to the President, from roughly a gazillion to a more manageable half dozen, and then refine that list still further in advance of taking a completed report to the White House. Before the meeting there was great excitement amongst the so-called “space enthusiast community”, and Twitter, message boards and forums were full of fevered speculation. Would the Commission be supporting the proposed Return to The Moon? Would it, instead, suggest NASA sends manned missions to asteroids Would it be truly bold and visionary and recommend NASA embarked on a program that would send people to Mars? Sat here at home, watching the meeting live on NASA TV, I felt the excitement too. As the Commission members took the stage and settled into their seats, everything and anything seemed possible!

A couple of hours later, after Sally Ride – the first US woman in space – had given her presentation, it was clear that Nothing Is Possible. At least, nothing is possible with the budget NASA is going to be given.

3817335231_167b340b68_b copy

Sally Ride – oh, the poor woman; she looked like she would rather have been cleaning out a constipated elephant’s intestinal tract with her bare hands than standing on that stage, at that podium, breaking the bad news – put on a brave face, and littered her presentation with quips and witty lines, but it fell to her to tell everyone the slap-across-the-face brutal truth: NASA’s budget simply isn’t great enough to let it do anything other than fly the space shuttle a few more times than planned, and then keep using the International Space Station. Unless the US Govt gives NASA more money, its astronauts will remain exiled in LEO onboard the ISS, and any exploration “out there” will be carried out by robots only. No matter how hard the Commission looked – and they looked under every rock, stone and Powerpoint presentation – they simply could not find a way that NASA could boost astronauts beyond Low Earth Orbit unless NASA’s budget is boosted too.

Sally actually said: “This budget is simply not friendly towards exploration”. Which is a subtle, non-offensive, non-inflammatory way of saying “The Moon? Mars? Ha! Don’t make me laugh! You’re taking the ****! We are going NOWHERE unless more money is spent on manned spaceflight.”

At the end of the meeting – well, I say the end, I didn’t actually see the end, I literally had to switch it off before the end I was so depressed – it was clear that for all its good intentions and enthusiasm, the Commission had run up against a financial brick wall. There would be no “Dash out of Low Earth Orbit”, which was one of their most visionary options, just a slow, wheezing, asthmatic crawl around the Earth for the lucky few astronauts who managed to thumb a ride up to the space station onboard foreign or even privately-funded commercial spacecraft. There would be no grand Return To The Moon, just a few, grudging “Are we there yet?” wet Bank Holiday excursions to it. There would be no Moonbase, not even a program of short stays. There would be no manned lunar exploration At All.

And as for sending people to Mars… well, that was swept off the table like crumbs left after a meal. All that was left was a well-meant and sincere – but ultimately absolutely frakking meaningless – statement of support for the goal of eventually sending people to Mars, without a time frame being mentioned. What this means in reality is that Mars is as far away as Alpha Centauri, to all intents and purposes.

So, any kids reading this who want to go to Mars when they grow up – forget it, set your sights on something more realistic. Hey, try going into your bedroom and walking into your wardrobe – you might come out in Narnia… don’t laugh, that’s about as likely as NASA sending people to Mars before you grow up, or the 100th anniversary of Apollo 11, or whichever comes first…


So, what was the Commission left with? What are the options it is now considering?

A lot depends on the International Space Station. That will either be decomissioned – translation: abandoned and allowed to burn up like a shooting star – in 2016, when NASA’s primary responsibility for it ends, or, if more money and support can be obtained for the ISS from NASA’s international partners, its life could be extended to 2020 or even beyond. However, with no money in NASA’s kitty for a shuttle replacement, this would mean ISS crew travelling to and from it in privately-funded and built spacecraft, essentially the commercialisation of LEO which NASA would support. It was also possible that the ISS could find a new role as a kind of “orbital refuelling depot”, a bit like that ramshackle Russian space station in ARMAGEDDON…

iss gas

What about the ARES 1 rocket that NASA has been touting as the replacement for the space shuttle? Sorry, looks like there’s not enough money to build that AND the ARES 5 heavy lift rocket that the Commission is absolutely convinced that NASA needs, so if President Obama takes the Commission’s advice ARES 1 could be dead before it’s even made its first test flight, which is a bit ironic because the Ares 1 that will make that first test flight is almost ready to be wheeled out of the VAB…


Instead NASA could encourage and support private companies to build the rockets and capsules that would ferry astronauts into LEO and back again. That would be a radical departure for the modern NASA, true, but it is, apparrently, what NASA was actually set up to do in the first place – i.e. to develop new technologies and then pass them on to private industry for them to use commercially.

What about the plans to Return To The Moon? Well, basically, they’re dead, or at the very least on hold. No money. Certainly the Commission thinks that a big Moonbase at a lunar pole is just not possible. They also think that a series of smaller missions, explorations of different lunar sites, is impossible under the current budget guidelines, so what’s left? Well, either a short, grudging visit to the Moon every couple of years, or even just manned flybys of the Moon. if that. But the way things stand, no-one is going to land on, or even just fly around, the Moon in the next twenty years. There’s just no money, see?


That loud “bang!” you heard last night? That was the sound of the Augustine Commission pushing NASA’s poor terrified plan for lunar exploration to its knees and then executing it with a shot to the back of the head…

Altair-lander rd

Remember that poignant scene in APOLLO 13 where Jim Lovell takes in the dreadful truth and tells his crew “We just lost the Moon…”? Well, right now there are dozens of astronauts in NASA’s astronaut corps thinking exactly the same thing: “I just lost the Moon…”

One option the Commission had been discussing – before it realised that NASA doesn’t have enough money to do ANYTHING – is its so-called “Deep Space” option, which would see astronauts leaving low Earth orbit and travelling to other destinations… without landing on them.

Yes, you read that correctly, WITHOUT LANDING ON THEM.

There’s a technical term for that kind of mission, it’s called a “fly-by“!

Now, I have to make it clear before I go on that I admire the hard work the Commission has done. ( Personally I think they were handed a classic “No Win” situation, in that Obama knew from the start that NASA isn’t able to do anything exciting with its astronauts because he has no intention of giving them enough money to DO anything exciting with them, but this way he can say he’s just taking the advice of a panel of experts. Clever, eh? ) They have clearly worked tirelessly on this. But… come on… seriously? Fly-bys? Let me tell you about fly-bys.

Astronauts on a fly-by of a planet aren’t explorers, they’re tourists.

Fly-bys aren’t bold, they’re timid.

Fly-bys aren’t visionary, or daring, they’re shameful and shaming.

Fly-bys aren’t “exploring”, they’re sightseeing.


That picture is funny cos it shows astronauts dragging suitcases behind them, but the truth of this situation is much worse – astronauts wouldn’t land on anything to drag suitcases across! Their feet would never touch the ground!

Can you imagine, I mean, can you IMAGINE, the utter waste of time, resources and money it would be to finally, after all these years, build a spaceship big enough to send people to Mars, and bring them home again safely, without them landing on the **** thing?!?!? Picture the scene. After a hazardous and arduous voyage of 6 long months, the crew of Ares 1 are approaching Mars. It looms large in their window, like a diseased orange. The mission is about to reach its wonderful climax…

“Let me see!”

“No, let ME see! Oww! Watch your elbows!”

“Well move! I was at the window first! Give me that camera!!”

“No! I want it – oh. Too late. We just passed Mars…”

How frustrated – how sick – would those astronauts be? How cheated would the taxpayers feel? How angry would the scientists be? Talk about a Lose Lose scenario.

Ok, what happens next? Well, the meeting – and the feelings of the Commission – can be summed up in one dagger-to-the-heart sentence: with the money available, the US’s human presence in space will be limited, for the forseeable future, to Low Earth Orbit, and the modules of the International Space Station.

And that’s it, really. For the forseeable future, the farthest US – and European and, essentially, Western – astronauts will travel in space is a few hundred metres beyond the airlock door of the International Space Station. The most exciting things they’re going to get to “explore” are the micrometeorite pitted rivets, pipes and plates on the outside of the ISS.

From now until around 2015, or 2020 at the latest, Space will not be the Final Frontier, the outer hull of the ISS will be. Maybe they should hang a sign on the inside of the Quest airlock, something like this…


2009 will go down in the history books as a historic year for space exploration. It will be remembered as the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon… and if President Obama doesn’t put his hand in his pocket and give NASA some more money it will also be remembered as the year NASA ‘s astronauts were forced into exile in low Earth orbit, while the US Govt happily surrendered the many diverse worlds of the solar system to machines.

Here’s the bottom line, folks: unless NASA’s budget is given a boost, for at least the next 30 years the solar system will belong to robots.

Or maybe not…

There are other nations interested in exploring the solar system in person. They don’t have the technology to do it… yet… or the experience to do it… yet… but they definitely want to, and it might well be that, sometime around 2020, US and European astronauts will stare forlornly out of the ISS window and see a manned spacecraft leaving Low Earth Orbit and heading out for the Moon…

Before the Commission shone a light onto the budget shortfall within NASA, the idea was scoffed at and ridiculed, but now I think there’s now a  very real possibility that the next words spoken on the surface of the Moon will be spoken in Chinese.

I’ve been giving Outreach talks for a long, long time, and have always told my audiences that  the person destined to be the first man or woman to set foot on Mars is already alive, and running around a school playground somewhere. I have always illustrated that point with a picture, something like this…


… now I’m going to delete that picture from my Powerpoint presentation and replace it with this one…

moon mars colonists

Melodramatic? Perhaps. Overly pessimistic? I think not. There’s no escaping the brutal truth of this. NASA now doesn’t have the money to send people farther than a couple of hundred miles away from Earth.


Of course, there’s another, intriguing possibility. Maybe President Obama actually WANTS to boost NASA, and wants to give it more money, and that has been his Baldrick cunning plan all along, but he doesn’t feel he can do it without some kind of input from people ‘in the biz’ who know more about space exploration than he does? Maybe Obama really does feel some of the passion for spaceflight and exploration he talked about during his election campaign, and does want to see NASA sending people to the Moon and Mars, but doesn’t feel able to just stand up and call for increased funding on his own? Maybe his Masterplan all along was to set up a Commission that would tell him something he already knew – that NASA needs more money – thus allowing him to stand up in front of Congress and say “NASA could be great again… American men and women could push back the Final Frontier again… American astronauts could travel to other worlds again, and plant the Stars and Stripes in their ground again, but only if NASA is given the resources, the funds, to do it. This is not my opinion, but the opinion of a panel of respected space experts, explorers and commentators. The Moon calls… Mars beckons… the solar system is ours for the taking… if we are willing to support NASA…

You think?

No. Me neither. I live in hope, but I won’t hold my breath while I do it.

This is all very depressing, isn’t it? When you think of where we could be, and should be. Seriously, watching that Commission meeting was like going to the vet with a beloved pet. You’ve known it was ill for a while – it was off its food, was looking dishevelled and out of sorts, and couldn’t do the exciting things it used to any more – but you’d managed to convince yourself it was just a little off colour, not seriously ill. Suddenly the vet is telling you that your pet is actually VERY ill, and without radical treatment, probably surgery, it could actually die. Saving it will take money. A LOT of money…


I mean, we all knew NASA was ill, right? We all knew that there was no chance of it escaping the global recession, that it wasn’t surrounded by some magical force field that would deflect all the financial bullets and shells… but I don’t think it was too naive of us to believe that it could be spared the brutal gutting it now looks destined to suffer. These are dark times indeed, and might be about to get even darker.

On Thursday night I thought I’d cheer myself up by going out and actually looking at the night sky. That usually lifts my spirits! After two evenings of Perseid meteor-hiding cloud the sky Thursday night was lovely and clear, so as I walked over to the Park opposite my flat I had high hopes of seeing some shooting stars, and was pretty sure that spending some time out beneath all those distant suns would help distract me from my Augustine-triggered melancholy. So, there I stood, looking up. To my right a golden, waning Moon was shining above the jagged silhouette of Kendal’s ruined castle, and above me the stars were clear and bright. “Come on,” I thought, urging the shooting stars to appear, “any time you like…”

Half an hour later, as the Parish Church bells tolled midnight, I hadn’t seen a single frakking shooting star. I can’t blame the Augustine Commission for that, I know, but it was just One More Thing.

So I did what I usually do, I wriggled my MP3 player’s headphones into my ears and put some music on to keep me awake. KT Tunstall first… couple of Ting Tings tracks… some Mike Oldfield…

Then the theme from the movie STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT started playing, and I had a real Moment. Because as that beautiful trumpet fanfare began I just happened to be looking high to the south and west, up at the stars of the Summer Triangle – Deneb, Vega and Altair. Between them the Cygnus Star Cloud was a misty blur, beneath them the fainter star clouds of Sagittarius were just visible, vanishing behind the trees… It’s an area of sky I know very well, but now I can’t help but see it differently, because that part of the sky is where the planet-hunting KEPLER probe is now studying intensely, looking for Earth-like worlds orbiting other, alien suns. Whenever I look at that area of sky now I can almost see the Kepler “Field of view” superimposed on the sky…


And as I stood there, staring up at those myriad stars, with the movie’s theme playing, listening to the trumpets blaring and the strings swirling, rather than feeling happier and lighter, I found myself feeling even more melancholy, because I realised that that Federation Future I wish for Mankind – where we’re an interplanetary, even an interstellar species – might now be much, much farther away than before. Now before anyone fires off a “Star Trek is science fiction! It’s not real life!” comment, I KNOW that already, ok? I’m not stupid! I don’t think we’re even remotely near a future where people travel between the stars at “warp speed” in gleaming, sleek, white starships. I believe… I hope… we’ll get there one day, but that’s many centuries ahead. But I did think we were heading for a future where missions to the Moon and Mars stopped being science fiction and became science fact.

After watching that Augustine Commission meeting I felt like Neo in the first Matrix film, you know? I had been perfectly happy in my own little pod, drooling over NASA computer animations of Ares rockets thundering skywards and astronauts bouncing around glinting Altair landers, believing as I read yet another NASA report or .pdf file describing the Return to The Moon and the subsequent exploration of Mars. I looked up at the sky believing that Everything Would Be Alright, believing that before I died I’d see see at least a couple of lights glinting in the dark seas of the Moon, as manned outposts were set up, believing that I’d live long enough to stand in my garden, believing that in my old age I’d look up and see an Iridium-like flare in the sky as the first manned expedition set off for Mars, followed half a year later by live TV footage of people bouncing across the surface of Mars…

Then Norm Augustine handed me that blasted red pill and I found myself in the Real World, the world beyond the Matrix, the world where, unless NASA is given more money, none of those things are going to happen before I die. None of them.

pill aug

Looking up at that starfield between Deneb and Vega, into which Kepler is currently staring, I wondered how many Other Earths are hiding within it.

And I wondered… if they are inhabited, how many of the species living on those Earths once took a Giant Leap off their homeworld and flew into space, only to turn their backs on the stars and their destiny a few short years later?

Or are we the first…?


NOTE: Just in case anyone is confused, this is NOT an attack on, or a statement of dissatisfaction with, the Augustine Commission itself. They’re just the messenger giving the bad news, and don’t deserve to be shot. They’ve just shone a light on the problem that is NASA’s insufficient budget. Their report is a wake up call for the politicians who have the final say over NASA’s budget. In an idea world those politicians would think “Hmm, maybe we should give NASA more money… they inspire people and actually make the country money” but I’m not going to hold my breath. The worst case scenario here would be that the politicians suddenly decide that manned exploration should be given more money, but that money should come from NASA’s unmanned programs, which would mean huge problems for the plans for future Mars rovers and probes to the outer planets. I guess all we can do is wait and see what happens.

26 Responses

  1. Space travel should be Humanity’s mission, not just that of the United States. If anyone from another country wants to go with us, they can start contributing some serious cash. If anyone else wants to lead the way, lots of people here are ready to help.

    On the other hand, the USA needs to stop throwing money at NASA and start investing in private space travel and easing some of the restrictions on who can fly or who can team up with non-Americans to go into space. And right now the only economic reason to go into space is tourism. NASA objects to any civilian going into space, unless they are a NASA employee. NASA should go back to its original mission of testing new technologies and allowing private companies to license the product. There should be no such thing as a NASA astronaut.

    On the gripping hand, the federal government here could easily stop spending so many millions on left-wing political activist groups like ACORN and divert that money to NASA. But any time budget cutting enters the political discussion here, all anyone in any country thinks of is the Pentagon.

  2. The short version of this absurdly prolix response is: don’t shoot the
    messenger. The message that there’s not enough money has been
    glaringly obvious right from the word go, and if you didn’t realise
    that… well, it sucks to be disappointed, but that’s why it’s better
    to be a pessimist and get pleasant surprises than the converse.

    Disclaimer: I’m telling it like I see it here, and I’m told 🙂 I can come over as being incredibly rude in this mood. I apologise for any hurt feelings, no offence is intended and any such are entirely the fault of me and my big smart-arse mouth. Stu, I think you can guess the tenor of what I’m going to say, so you might want to just skip reading it.

    I think you’ve misunderstood the nature of the Augustine report (as
    presented on the 12th, and yes I know the final report’s not out yet.) They have, *entirely correctly and uncontroversially*, pointed out that the current funding plans aren’t going to be enough to carry out the Bush “Moon first, then Mars” plan. That’s unambiguously good news – not that the money’s not there, necessarily, but that the .gov have been unequivocally and authoritatively told that the money’s not there. It’s been completely obvious from the moment President Bush first announced it, anyway, this is just another painful reality check after the hallucinatory hologram of government the US had for the previous eight years.

    Now they get to decide whether to increase funding to the level needed, or change the plan. I do note that they specifically said that the basic plan of returning to the moon before continuing to Mars is still the recommended course. The conclusion, therefore, is inescapable: the Commission is saying “increase NASA’s budget”.

    Right, on to the nitpicks… 😉

    “there can be very few people now who aren’t aware that there are incredibly succesful unmanned spaceprobes operating on and around Mars, around Saturn and on their way to Pluto”

    I’d be very surprised if more than, say, 20% of a random sample of the population know there are Mars orbiters and rovers, or about Cassini or New Horizons. Someone somewhere must have done a proper poll, but I’ve not been able to turn up any data online.

    “at the end I would have slit my wrists with a piece of jagged glass…”

    No, you wouldn’t. You’re exaggerating for comic effect, but suicide really isn’t funny.

    > So, any kids reading this who want to go to Mars when they grow up –
    > forget it, set your sights on something more realistic. ”

    Well, duh! I don’t want to be rude, really I don’t! but frankly it would have
    been delusional ever to think otherwise.

    > It was also possible that the ISS could find a new role as a kind of
    > orbital refuelling depot

    As Doug pointed out on Twitter, no, it’s not possible and never has
    been. The orbital inclination is wrong.

    > right now there are dozens of astronauts in NASA’s astronaut corps
    > thinking exactly the same thing: “I just lost the Moon…”

    Hey, they knew the risks… 😉

    > Obama knew from the start that NASA isn’t able to do anything
    > exciting with its astronauts because he has no intention of giving
    > them enough money to DO anything exciting with them, but this way he
    > can say he’s just taking the advice of a panel of experts. Clever,
    > eh?

    Firstly, you do realise that’s how government works pretty much all
    over the world, right? If you have bad news to give the electorate, of
    *course* it’s better coming from an independent body. It’s not clever,
    it’s SOP. Nothing surprising there at all.

    Secondly, the Administration can’t pass the responsibility for
    deciding whether or not to increase funding to Augustine; that was is
    will always be a decision for the Executive and (in the US system)

    Thirdly, you’ll have noticed that some other, non-space related shit
    has gone down in the world over the last twelve months. Space
    exploration is, rightly, a long long way behind things like avoiding
    global socio-economic collapse. Yes, it sucks that lots of money just
    went down the memory-hole to pay the last couple of decades of
    sportscars, home decor, foreign holidays, iPods and cellphones; but we
    are where we are, and pretending otherwise helps no-one.

    There’s another debate lurking in here about the relative priorities
    society allocates to healthcare, education, law and order, defence,
    transport and so forth and so on. I don’t really want to go there,
    except to say that I’m guessing you’ve never volunteered for a
    political party. I strongly recommend it as a way to understand what
    people are really interested in. Try banging on a few front doors or
    standing in your local shopping centre handing out leaflets, and chat
    to people about what they care about. No, really, I’m serious! You
    might also find it illuminating to try engaging with mainstream
    political parties at the local level. Go along to some meetings, chat
    to the activists, broach the topic of space, see how you get on.

    Your shop’d warning sign on the ISS hatch is inaccurate. It’s not too
    dangerous for humans, it’s too expensive. (Arguably it’s the danger
    that leads to the expense, but you see my point.)

    > it will also be remembered as the year NASA’s astronauts were
    > forced into exile in low Earth orbit

    Oh, piffle.

    > there’s now a very real possibility that the next words spoken on
    > the surface of the Moon will be spoken in Chinese.

    So what?

    WRT the “Please Sir, I want some more” pic: Go read this.


    Oh, that nasty horrible Mr Obama, what a callous bastard he is to be
    crushing a young child’s dreams like that! Stu, really, you need to
    get some perspective.

    > This is all very depressing, isn’t it?

    No, not at all. If anything it’s encouraging for the future of
    UMSF. Think how many MERs, Cassinis or New Horizons we could have for
    half the budget allocated to manned spaceflight! If you find this
    depressing I suggest that you need to get some damn perspective. There
    are far, far worse things going on right now, as you read this, than
    NASA’s budget woes. If you don’t know of any, say so, and I will
    provide a dozen links by return of post that show appalling suffering
    and destruction which YOU choose to do nothing about because you’re
    dreaming of science fiction.

    > he theme from the movie STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT started playing,
    > and I had a real Moment.

    _exactly_. Wake up, Stu, reality is not Hollywood.

    > before anyone fires off a “Star Trek is science fiction! It’s not
    > real life!” comment, I KNOW that already, ok? I’m not stupid!

    And yet in the VERY PREVIOUS SENTENCE you said:

    > I realised that that Federation Future I wish for Mankind – where
    > we’re an interplanetary, even an interstellar species – might now be
    > much, much farther away than before.

    Don’t you see that you’ve completely contradicted yourself? Confusing
    science fiction and reality is EXACTLY what you’re doing.

    > I believe… I hope… we’ll get there one day,

    Belief. Faith. Mirage. Delusion. Myth. Fantasy. See the pattern

    > …I found myself in the Real World…

    Shock to the system, hmmm? Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you… :/

    • Thanks for that very considered and detailed reply to my blog post, seriously, I appreciate it. Yes, yopur reply was very rude in places, but I’m a big boy, and I’d much rather someone felt moved to reply to my writing than was left unmoved by it, so I welcome your response, and genuinely appreciate you taking the time to write me. 🙂 Couple of things tho: I think you’ve misunderstood the point of my post – it wasn’t to criticise the Commission for what it said… that was their job, to get to the truth… it was to bemoan the situation itself. I don’t think I criticise the Commission, or its work, even once in my post, but I’ll check. Secondly, I’m well aware of the global situation re finances and everything else, as I’ve made clear in other posts on CS. I don’t live in some fantasy world where space is THE most important thing in the world and nothing else matters; as a news junkie I probably have a better grasp of world affairs than many people reading this. Lastly, I’m not a professional journalist, I don’t work for TIME magazine or NatGeo, so I don’t have to be cold, objective and serious; my blog – like all blogs – is all about my personal feelings, and my personal feelings about NASA’s budget woes are “WTF!!!!!” This stuff matters to me, I love it, I live it, as you know from UMSF, and I get very emotional about it. My writing style is, I hope, informal and entertaining, and if people think I go over the top sometimes, or get a bit melodramatic, well, I’ll lose no sleep over that I’m afraid. I don’t force anyone to come here and read my stuff 🙂

  3. Lloyd,
    Are you kidding? WTF does Acorn have to do with this conversation? Have you even looked at a pie chart of the US budget? Where do you think the vast majority of our tax monies go to? Look it up sometime, or admit you’re just an O’Reilly/Beck/Coulter loving freak. (See? Doesn’t make sense when I do it either)

  4. I try to put all this in some kind of historical context.
    I can recall being told of Sputnik by my Kindergarten teacher, and seeing re runs of the Disney ‘Man In Space’ shows. Life Magazine devoted many cover stories to space. I recall the affluent post war era when space flight appeared to be a ‘program’ of human expansion, gradually but steadily. Youth has a way of latching on to the optimistic, to dream and to hope. The ‘Baby Boom’ appeared at the apex of the ‘Pax Americana’ as it were and was brought up with the expectations of our reach continuing to exceed that of our forebears as had been the case for many generations. In reality this generation would be the last to be raised with that perspective.
    The decade of the 1960’s was characterized by subdivisions of society (primarily American and ‘Western’) into groups acting upon differing world views. By the time of Apollo going to the Moon was unfortunately lumped in with the Military Industrial Complex by those agitating for change at the time, and a big chunk of emerging public opinion thus drifted toward hostility to Moon voyages. Apollo became a symbol of what we couldn’t or wouldn’t do with similar resources. A tragic pivotal moment in the ‘clash of cultures’ accompanied the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. If Hubert Humphery had won the 1968 election, his enthusiasm for space would have made it likely that we would have continued the momentum of that moment, likely resulting in small towns on the Moon and a base on Mars today. That opportunity passed, and Viet Nam as well as other spending choices used up vast funds making space exploration seem less attractive every year.

    For me personally, the first ‘Great Disillusionment’ in the idea of space exploration being an inevitable force of history came in my USGS work during and after the Apollo 15 mission talking to geologists going to and from NASA Headquarters. In general the higher one went the less science and more politics one found oneself surrounded by. They knew by then we were going to stop Moon flights and ‘not go back for 20 years’. In retrospect if only we had returned in 1991!
    Since then there were revivals of at least vocal support for sending people beyond Earth orbit, both by Presidents named Bush. Nowadays few liberal Democrats seem to support a vigorous manned space program, so as the pendulum swings in election cycles all sense of momentum is lost in political support. The present economic convulsions and health care concerns, combined with ever increasing energy costs, conspire to make the world of the future a poorer and less stable place. The day may come when we regard people being in space at all from the yawning gulf of time and affluence we now view the Moon landings from. The 1960’s began with 3 billion people on Earth, today we are about to reach 7 billion. As more of these people want Western living standards the net living standards will decline everywhere else, even with major efforts to use the remaining known fuel resources. The ability of any one nation to marshall enough resources to sustain a manned space presence will likely decline over the long term.
    There are always upturns statistically, and perhaps happy times in history come from the co-incidental convergence of good conditions on several fronts. Such was the time of Apollo’s birth, and in unexpected ways it may happen again, however uphill such things as returning to the Moon appear now.

    As an affordable option making good use of emerging technologies, the idea of a manned flyby or orbiting of Mars without a manned landing deserves reconsideration. I recall reading that if you don’t need to send a huge lander to the surface and back up, only half the mass needs to be launched off Earth. That could make the difference in feasibility of such a long distance flight taxing our resources. Today, to put things in perspective, a Mars sample return mission is too expensive to contemplate. I imagine a great Manned planetary mission going to Mars orbit carrying 3 or 4 rovers with advanced VR interface. Really advanced, enough to provide to the real time controller a similar experience to being in a pressurized rover on the surface. These would be sent to regions interesting and not as constrained as a manned landing would undoubtedly be. The advantages of operating the rovers in real time would be enjoyed by the orbiting crew, able to look around in the entire visual field, a 180 degree hemispheric perspective, and obtain close ups at will as well as stereo pairs and HD 30 frame per second video.
    Once the return from Mars orbit commences, light time delayed control of the VR rovers is handed off to some kind of NASA/University co-operative, where students in still and video photography, meteorology, geology and such can use the rover cameras to investigate what they would like to look at. This would likely trend towards emphasis on ‘PR’ friendly use of camera resources, things like dust storms and time lapse studies. The video output could be displayed ‘real time’ on a tilted dome allowing groups of people to see in correct perspective updated images at whatever rate is feasible from the Martian surface. Such an experience designed as a widely shared event may be more culturally significant then knowing a few people have done it.


  5. […] especially enjoyed Cumbrian Sky’s funeral for manned Moon and Mars missions — although I’m not particularly concerned by […]

  6. I posted this over on Startswithabang as well:

    In reference to the manned space program, the link below may add to the frustration. Visual representation of the cost of various things, including a manned mission to Mars. In the grand scheme of things, manned spaceflight is more than worthy.


    Here’s hoping that the Augustine Commission will be a wakeup call and not a death knell.

  7. I’m not depressed, I’m cheered. Because it can’t be a bad thing when a spade is recognized as a spade. Using a spade as shovel will take more time.

    Besides, this means that NASA and Constellation gets clobbered for overextending beyond reasonable targets for the existing budget. (Never mind the reason for the underfunding.) The system is designed for high speed Earth entry, yet it is scaled back for LEO. Typical waste of resources (time, money, plans, … , you name it) as per above.

    Instead there will be a realistic path forward, building and utilizing several suborbital and LEO systems, national and commercial both. Uses are strategical (ISS, now coming on its own as regards research) and commercial (suborbital and orbital tourism and research). This will mean better to good ROI for once.

    Meanwhile robotic exploration is still exploding, and it’s infrastructure still far from optimized (say 24-7 communication). More money there is good ROI.

    On that topic, and the future, I’m concerned that US chauvinism, as for example displayed in this post where chinese Moon or Mars visits are “bad”, is still strong. Some cooperation is forced on participants due to the cost structure of even robotic exploration. But “international” still means a few bilateral efforts, not a coherent exploration program.

    [I’ve had this analysis before IIRC. IMHO exploration and research is best served with scientific competition within economic cooperation of shared basics. Think experiments on international platforms analogous to experiments on probe platforms.

    While exploitation and habitation is best served by dedicated (including national) efforts, where shared basics develop from a market instead. Modeled on what I think happens in the Antarctic – but I could be mistaken on all accounts.]

    It is scary but also liberating to leave man’s expansion to market forces and private initiatives. But that has always been the main mode.

    But when, when, when indeed will Mars’ “Magellan” be born? [Not that I want specifically the _circumvention_ of Mars to be his or hers main goal.] Anxious and curious minds wants to know…

    • On that topic, I also meant to mention that commercialism seems robuster. Even in this recession there will likely be takers enough for suborbital visits and the continuation of some of these efforts. While as seen government founding is risky.

  8. The arguments were false from the beginning. I’ve heard it quite often: we must deorbit the ISS because it’s to expensive and go to the moon instead. A flight to the moon must be cheaper. Now these magicians get it on paper. The ISS is affordable, the moon is not.

  9. I think these pages are a really nice piece of work. Re the comment up this thread, “…prolix,” of course it takes more words to say things that don’t fit words well. I’m still waiting today (Aug 26) to see what the Augustine Commission comes out with; and from lots of news I’ve seen over recent decades, I think these pages make me a little more ready for what’s probably coming. I do see no shortage of money for serious space work and I’ve some ideas what it most needs to be. But I see also, that money goes to wars and corruption, not to the future. Fifty years ago I could see settlements off-Terra soon. Today I can hope for them fifty years hence, long after my time. I can’t say how sorry I am about this, but I’m working at it in my own Web site. Which really, isn’t at all as nicely done as this one, but that’s another topic.

    — Martha Adams, 2009 Aug 26

  10. […] I fear that it will keep thousands of former shuttle program people  employed at the expense of not getting us beyond low Earth orbit for another three decades. I think the competing DIRECT proposal has a lot going for it. But for now, today, Ares 1-X is what […]

  11. 42 years ago when I was 14 I had a discussion with my best friend. We were both interested in manned space exploration and still are today. I told him before I die I wanted to see 2 manned space achievments. One was a permanent lunar base and two was man having set foot on Mars and exploring it. Now with a 40% breathing disability I think my days are numbered and I will not be able to see my dreams

    Maybe before my kids die they will see it if a detailed program with an actual date is announced and ACTED on with more money and iron will.

    Right now INMO we will need an earthshaking event like life found in space or”” first contact” from another spieces or a real known short term major destruction event of our planet. The human race MUST expand to colonize both the moon , Mars and beyond. For mankind to remain totally on earth is to face extinction.

  12. I’m sorry, but you’re naive if you think giving NASA more money is any better than flushing down the toilet. You could give them a blank check and a magical freaking genie, and they’d just do what they always do: invite Boeing and Lockheed over for a circle-jerk and deliver… NOTHING. I think the pres is on the right track, but he needs to get a little more creative with the budget machete… how about, say, ZERO. NASA did a GREAT THING forty years ago, and god bless them for that, but they’ve been screwing us all over since then. The need to get the hell out of the way and let the private sector pick up the ball they dropped before I was born.

  13. Sorry, meant to say “entrepreneurial sector”. That’s what I get for typing angry.

    Also, everybody go read Lost in Space by Greg Klerkx.

  14. Obama said that he wants to send a man to Mars.

    Now I am not interested in going but I am all for sending him to Mars.

  15. How is the private sector going to do what NASA does? This is not a commericial endevor. Space exploration does not produce a product for sale. The end product of space exploration is new knowledge. You can’t wrap knowledge in cellophane and put it on a shelf for sale. Knowledge is Free.

    That also goes for the defence industry. Neither of these agencies can survive without government money. In the same way some people can’t exist without welfare or food stamps. If you cut them off they just die. And that is what will happen to NASA if you cut off the funds. Your going to find astronauts working as greeters at Wal-Mart.

    • Hey ppl,
      Very disappointing. I am from India and I have always been interested in manned space exploration,especially MARS. NASA’s current budget would not allow the astronauts to go few miles beyond the low earth orbit,so annoying to listen to. I,even now,wish to be a crew member in the first manned mission to MARS. But,I don’t think I am currently qualified because—I am not a citizen of the US. If NASA is going to keep this policy of sending only the American citizens to space,it’s going to miss a lot of talent,lot of creativity from other countries. President Obama should consider this seriously and the US government should take steps to increase NASA s budget to a decent value so that the humans can land on MARS at least in another 30 years. I am seriously waiting for that to happen and I will take every possible step to be a crew member in the first manned mission to MARS. I hope this happens and humanity’s dreams come true. Thanks.

  16. Someone recently said this in a comment on a story about the water recently found on the Moon Space.com:

    I grew up loving the Space program and i am glad for the many things it has provided. Nevertheless, i have do not see the point at this time of spending money to return to an essentially a dead rock called the Moon. Especially since we have vast undiscovered oceans beneath that are teaming with life yet undiscovered. Congress should cut NASA by about 50 percent and start a major effort to explore the oceans.

    This was my reply:

    Wow. Where do I start?

    First of all, you’re presenting a false choice. You make it sound as if the pie is only so big and that NASA and oceanic exploration dollars come out of the same pie, and these are the only two things in the pie. Far from it. There are plenty of other programs far less worthy of your tax dollars and that cost more money than NASA. Also, there is plenty of money being spent on deep sea exploration, and NASA is even helping to do it. NASA supports deep sea exploration – it does not detract from it.

    Secondly, you’re obviously weren’t thinking very creatively when you wrote that post. The moon is a UNIQUE ENVIRONMENT. It has:

    – a near vacuum at the surface
    – reduced gravity
    – 14 days of night followed by 14 days of sunlight
    – perpetually black skies
    – a side that perpetually faces away from Earth
    – a side that perpetually faces the Earth
    – a solid surface to build things on
    – plenty of free regolith for radiation shielding and raw building materials
    – materials that can be mined for fuel, oxygen and water
    – plenty of helium-3
    – a dusty surface similar to the ones we’re going to find on Mars or asteroids.
    – plenty of craters
    – an ancient surface that hasn’t been disturbed much in about 4 billion years, give or take a little.
    – the ability to be readily accessible by 3 days travel

    Whoopee, you might say. What good does all that do us? Here’s a few ideas to get you started on how you might use such a unique environment.

    I assume you liked the Hubble Space telescope? Most people do. And the JWST is going to cool. But we’re starting to hit the limits of how big a mirror you can launch into space, and it gets more costly as you go. The size of these mirrors pales in comparison to the size of the mirrors we have on the ground (think Keck vs. Hubble). Now let’s look at some of the qualities above. Hmmm…vacuum at the surface – no atmosphere to get in the way of a clear picture. 14 days of night allowing long observations to be made. Perpetually black skies. A solid surface to build something on, no need to launch something into space. Plenty of regolith that could be turned into, oh, I dunno, glass. Building larger glass mirrors is difficult, though, because they start to become too heavy under their own weight. But wait a minute, we’ve got reduced gravity, so we can build a mirror 6 times larger than the largest one we could build on Earth, never mind the ones we can put into space. Gotten any ideas yet?

    No? Maybe you like SETI and the dish at Arecibo? That was built in natural bowl-shaped depression. Oh, wait. That sounds like a crater. Yeah, I think we might find a few suitable areas to build a nice big radio dish. And we’ve still got reduced gravity so we can build it nice and big. And, if we build it on the far side of the moon, the moon acts as a natural shield against all the loud radio interference that has to screened out to hear the tiny whispers of a signal that we’re looking for. The increase in the signal-to-noise ratio and the reduction in false positive signals from military satellites and other manmade sources would be enormous. I can just picture ET saying, “Can you hear me now?”

    OK, maybe you’re not big on telescopes. What else have we got? Ooh, I know. You want to go exploring the solar system. Hmmm. Plenty of regolith that we can make fuel, oxygen, and water from, and reduced gravity. That might make it cheaper to, I dunno, launch consumables into lunar orbit to refuel spacecraft from.

    And guess what? Mars and the asteroids have low pressure, low gravity, dusty environments with abrasive particles, just like the moon. And we’re going to need to develop tools, techniques and experience in working in such environments before we send ourselves months or years away from Earth with no margin for error – if something goes wrong out there – you’re on your own. Whatever tools and methods you take with you had better be reliable enough to stake your life on and tested well enough over long periods of time that you’re sure they’re going to work. If something fails while you’re training and practicing, like say, I dunno, let me pick a random program and number, Apollo 13, you might actually have a shot at saving somebody.

    Still no ideas? Maybe you’re one of those Earth first guys. Concerned about the environment and all that? We should be spending money finding a new energy source. Yeah! Well, there’s this energy source called fusion. It’s really efficient, it doesn’t produce radioactive waste like fission does, it doesn’t produce carbon emissions, a little fuel produces a lot of power and lasts a long time. The only problem is, you have to heat the fuels to such high temperatures and pressures that we have a hard time sustaining the reaction very long. But you know, there is one fuel that fuses a lot easier than the others, requiring significantly lower temperatures and pressures. It’s called Helium-3. Maybe we should just start mining that on Earth and…oh, wait. Earth doesn’t have any Helium-3 to speak of. If only there was a place relatively nearby that had it in abundance…

    Don’t like nuclear energy even if it’s clean? Think it’s too far away? How about solar energy? Carl Sagan once calculated that a square area covered in solar cells only 30 miles on each side could generate enough electricity to meet the world’s demands. Problem is, you’d have to evacuate 900 sq. miles of land at the equator. If only there were a place where you could build a few of these, or maybe even a whole band around the equator (30 feet up so you can drive under it and put it above where the dust naturally travels/settles), and beam back the energy to Earth via microwave lasers that always faced the Earth.

    Still no ideas? Let’s see, what have I forgotten? Oh yeah, maybe you’re a science guy, really into figuring out how stuff got started, the solar system, the Earth, the Moon, life on Earth and all that. You know, the problem with that is that most of the evidence on Earth has been wiped away trough billions of years of plate tectonics and erosion. If only there was a place we could study the geology of that was still in a relatively pristine state, with the bedrock exposed by the already excavated craters, maybe even vacuum-sealed for freshness…

    I know. You like to travel to historic sites in exotic locales….hmmm…yeah, um, er, no – I can’t think of any momentous events in human history you’d like to see the artifacts from in person, or any landscapes that would blow your mind. Forget I mentioned it.

    Maybe you’re a sports guy. But then again, I really can’t imagine why someone would want to try some really extreme sports in 1/6th gravity. You’d be able to jump 6 times higher, throw things six times farther, etc., but I’m sure that has no appeal to anyone, either.

    And heck, we’ve been there and done that already! I mean, what were those crazy Europeans thinking sending more ships back after Columbus already discovered the darn thing?

    And Constellation? Pffft! That was just Apollo all over again. Because we should just be able to do all this stuff right off the bat. We don’t need how to work and live in an environment and learn how to build stuff out on the frontier, recycle waste and live off the land, you know, so we can kinda learn how to do all this other neat cool stuff that I can’t think of. And of course, we should cancel any program that starts to have even the slightest bit of difficulty meeting its goals, because that’s fiscally responsible! The commercial sector will be doing that in 40 years or so anyway! After all, we all know how much businesses love to take risks on such big-scale, innovative and unproven ideas that no one is sure will ever be profitable. I’m sure they’ll be jumping all over it.

    Maybe you were right after all. I guess I just can’t think of any reason why someone would want to go back and visit that dumb old dead rock called the Moon.

  17. Your insertion of the Chinese future Mars explorers is probably correct. They are proposing a new space station and they have the cash and the political will, but they also now have the most important commodity, time. They will put a man (woman?) on Mars ~2040. Neatly and with a modicum of risk.

    A quick glance at Wiki tells us that the US government dropped between 2 and 3.5 trillion dollars in two years to support bank executives salaries and so that the banks can become profitable again by investing US dollars in emerging markets. In that context 400 billion dosn’t sound such an awful lot over ten years to begin building an outpost on another planet. Ho Hum, I hope I am still alive to see the first human on Mars even a Chinese one. It’s a species thing.

  18. “Mars? MARS? Why would we dump billions of perfectly good dollars into a NASA project so a couple of Astronauts can go fanning about on Mars, when we can use that money to invade Iran?!?”

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  21. The thing that was Robin Williams’ line?… “Stop or even I’ll yell avoid again”

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  23. NASA like any government institution has fulfilled its role. I think about it the same as BBC. Government created institution to fulfill the emerging role which no private business can afford to at that time. But time passes. Things get cheaper and more accessible.

    Old organisations like NASA have to constantly fight with increasing innertia of private needs of all involved parties. Read about history of SLS. Why new launching system has to use old inadequate boosters designed for Space Shuttle.

    All this makes very easy for someone who is not bind by long term subcontractors with congresionnal backing. Someone like Elon Musk.

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