Sunday, June 3, 2012

Neil Armst-wrong

Apollo 11 lunar astronaut and American hero Neil Armstrong.
American astronaut hero Neil Armstrong, rarely one to speak publicly, has come out as an outspoken critic of the commercialization of space travel. He, along with fellow Apollo alumni Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, testified before Congress to this effect, and drafted an email statement to NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree to decry the move to privatize space travel. Specifically, the trio seem concerned about NASA's shift--at the direction of the Obama administration--from funding their own shuttle-replacement space vehicle for US astronauts, to encouraging private enterprise to develop solutions for US space transport. SpaceX president Elon Musk responded to this criticism in a recent 60 Minutes interview.

The spacefaring trio's objections appear to be threefold:

- Privatization of space transport would take "substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope."

Shuttle Discovery being inspected for tile damage by ISS crew.
Are they kidding? This should be the tagline for every government program ever created.  Take the Space Shuttle, for example. While it had some spectacular scientific and technical achievements, including helping to build the ISS, the shuttle program was another greatly oversold government program that never performed to expectations. When the shuttle program was launched by NASA under the Nixon administration in 1972, it was projected that the shuttle fleet would perform as many as 50 launches per year. The final shuttle launch--that of Atlantis on July 11, 2011--was STS-135, the 135th launch since the first orbiter, Columbia, took to the final frontier on April 12, 1981--a far cry from 50 launches per year. As far as the cost, this blurb from Wikipedia summarizes it nicely:

Early during development of the space shuttle, NASA had estimated that the program would cost $7.45 billion ($43 billion in 2011 dollars, adjusting for inflation) in development/non-recurring costs, and $9.3M ($54M in 2011 dollars) per flight.[31] Early estimates for the cost to deliver payload to low earth orbit were as low as $118 per pound ($260/kg) of payload ($635/pound in 2011 dollars), based on marginal or incremental launch costs, and assuming a 65,000 pound (30 000 kg) payload capacity and 50 launches per year.[32][33]
The actual total cost of the shuttle program through 2011, adjusted for inflation, is $196 billion.[4] The exact breakdown into non-recurring and recurring costs is not available, but, according to NASA, the average cost to launch a Space Shuttle as of 2011 is about $450 million per mission.[34]

Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Because of this cost, and the considerable time required to refit a shuttle for re-launch, US astronauts currently reach the International Space Station via Soyuz capsules launched by the Russian space agency at a comparatively cheap, but still astounding, cost of $60 million per seat, a price that is steadily increasing. 

SpaceX's Dragon being grappled by the ISS's Canadarm2.
The cost to orbit cargo aboard Dragon is estimated to be under $5,360USD/kg. This is far less than the cheapest Russian vehicle, the Rockot, which can orbit cargo at approximately $7,297 USD/kg (and this figure is difficult to trust--from "the Russian Sh'til was also rumored to be very cheap, but its launch was subsidized at an undisclosed rate by the Russian Navy, rendering valid comparison impossible."). Dragon's figure for hauling cargo is just slightly over half the Space Shuttle's cost for same, at $10,400/kg. SpaceX president Elon Musk predicts a transportation cost for US astronauts aboard Dragon capsules of $30 million--half the cost of sending them up with the Russians--a price which will surely fall with increased competition and improvements in technology.

The competition between private companies will create a race to come up with the best solution for the lowest cost, and to deliver that solution first. Unlike a bloated, plodding, ponderous government effort--which can languish for years, or even decades, without result (or with very poor ones) because it enjoys endless taxpayer funding and doesn't have to worry about making a profit--a private effort will be driven by the profit motive to create workable solutions within a reasonable time frame and at the lowest possible cost.

- Commercializing space would lead to safety issues.

Lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong (L) and Gene Cernan (R).
Space exploration will always be dangerous, but there is no reason to think that it will become more so under private efforts than under government ones. During its 30 years of operation, the shuttle program lost 2 of the total 5 orbiters built, along with 14 lives. A private company should be able to do at least that well!

A company's reputation--its "brand"--protects consumers (in this case, astronauts) far better than government regulation and oversight ever could. Remember, these companies are competing for contracts worth billions, and to establish themselves as leaders in a new market which will be worth many billions more. The company that cuts corners and then has a serious accident will lose their shot at all of that. It is in their own greedy, profit-driven self interest to make sure that their missions go off without a hitch. 

- America will lose its dominance in space. From

"To be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," the three said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in front of the Falcon 9 rocket.
For the love of science and economics, will someone please give the Grumpy Old Men their medication?

SpaceX Dragon test crew.
We are already "without carriage to low earth orbit"--we depend solely on the Russians and their Soyuz capsules, remember? Private enterprise has already exceeded the status quo with regard to unmanned orbital cargo transport. The current Russian Progress capsule carries approximately 2,600kg of cargo to the ISS. Once unloaded, it is loaded up with trash from the ISS, disconnected, deorbited, and left to burn up in the atmosphere. 
The SpaceX Dragon module, by contrast, is designed to take up approximately 6,000kg of cargo, and then to return safely with 3,000kg of cargo, opening up numerous scientific, technical and experimental possibilities. (Dragon recently orbited and returned with half of these quantities for its recent demo flight to the space station.) For manned missions, the Soyuz capsule carries 3 astronauts/cosmonauts. The manned version of the Dragon capsule is currently being tested for a crew of 7.

As for deep space exploration, being able to hand off regular LEO (Low Earth Orbit) cargo and crew transport duties to private companies like SpaceX will be a boon to NASA, freeing up their manpower and resources to concentrate on deep space exploration missions, like a mission to Mars.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in front of the Falcon 9 rocket.
Commercialization of frontiers has been the norm for the human race, and it has led to unparalleled growth. At one time, crossing the Atlantic was an arduous and dangerous proposition. Same with the American frontier. Now crossing from London to New York, or New York to Los Angeles, is as easy as purchasing a ticket, and the greatest danger one faces in the whole journey is the drive to the airport.

Contrary to being the death of America in space, privatization is its rebirth. Armstrong's Apollo companion Buzz Aldrin sees this, as does NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Why can't he?
Virgin Galactic CEO Sir Richard Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan.
It takes heroes--people of great personal courage like Charles Lindbergh, Lewis and Clark, and Neil Armstrong--to take the first tentative steps into a new, uncertain, and dangerous frontier. It takes heroes of a different stripe--entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, and Elon Musk--to follow in those footsteps, pry open that frontier, and make it accessible to all. I have the greatest respect for Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell, but I believe that they are wrong. Privatization of space is not a development to be feared. It is a natural, logical, and long overdue next step in our journey to the stars. It should be celebrated for what it truly is--the brilliant dawn of an exciting new era for humanity in space.

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