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mygif

Well said. Getting to and from Mars is damned hard. Using minimum-energy trajectories, it’s nine months out, twelve months waiting for the return launch window, and nine months back. At thirty kilograms of consumables per day, per crew, you’re hauling 120 tons of food, water, and air for a crew of four.

If we want to strut our funky stuff across the Solar System, we need to get some basic things figured out first. You mentioned radiation protection, and the need for artificial gravity. We also need to figure out closed-loop life support, so we don’t have to haul so much stuff. And advanced propulsion, so we don’t have to haul so much fuel. And in-space refueling, so that we get to use the spaceship more than once.

We’ll get there, sooner or later. But we need to be honest about the hard work that has to happen before we’re ready to take that next step.

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mygif

Haven’t seen handwringing specific to Armstrong, but I don’t doubt it’s out there, and I agree that it’s misguided.

By now everyone realizes that old SF featuring passenger rockets and food pills and radiation having magical properties was ridiculous, but for some reason manned space travel never lost its allure. And sure, the visuals are cool. It’s still wildly impractical, though.

If the rules change – if faster-than-light travel is invented or if some kind of unobtainium is discovered Up There that we can’t find Down Here – then manned space exploration would make sense and I’d be all for it, but let’s stick to robots and telescopes until then.

As for another rationale I’ve seen, protection against some disaster that makes the Earth uninhabitable, it’s very hard to imagine the Earth becoming even less habitable than deep space or known planets.

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mygif

All of what you say up there is true, but the US keeps slashing funding to NASA to the point that we can’t even put up the Webb telescope, which is like, a rinky-dink side project on the scale of Federal expenditures. Solving the engineering challenges involved in a Mars mission would undoubtedly produce some extremely useful technology in the process, as the space program has always done previously, but I would be really happy just with ongoing smaller goals like an unmanned mission to Enceladus.

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Wolfthomas said on August 28th, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Silly MGK, we all know gamma rays turn you into a hulk.

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highlyverbal said on August 28th, 2012 at 1:00 pm

@Cyrus: “…it’s very hard to imagine the Earth becoming even less habitable than deep space or known planets.”

Um, nuclear weapons? That was hard to imagine?

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highlyverbal said on August 28th, 2012 at 1:04 pm

@Lindsey: “Solving the engineering challenges involved in a Mars mission would undoubtedly produce some extremely useful technology in the process, as the space program has always done previously”

Absolutely. Let’s secure those advances before any kind of fossil fuel crisis hits.

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@Cyrus: “…it’s very hard to imagine the Earth becoming even less habitable than deep space or known planets.”

Um, nuclear weapons? That was hard to imagine?

Living in mines, fallout shelters, and/or the poles still seems easier than living in a space station. A leak in lead shielding can be repaired in a few hours; a leak to hard vacuum has to be repaired in seconds.

Obviously, that depends on the size of the leak, and the general comparison depends on exactly how bad the hypothetical nuclear war is, how much people are prepared for it, and whether we’re talking about a space station or another planet. I think the basic point stands, though – this planet would have to get very, very, very screwed up for somewhere else to look good by comparison.

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Christian Williams said on August 28th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

I agree that a lot of the hand-wringing is BS.

But as Lindsey says, the US is slashing the NASA budget as if it was an agency that directly supports NAMBLA. That eroding support for the science and research that it takes to take the steps that get us to anywhere great?

That is worth a little hand-wringing.

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FifthSurprise said on August 28th, 2012 at 3:58 pm

“How do we put enough food on the spaceship so that the Marstronauts don’t starve to death?”

Personally I found this problem sexy, interesting, and having direct applications on the planet Earth. But yeah, space travel is complicated :(

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mygif

I don’t find anything wrong with the fact that we haven’t gone to Mars, nor that we aren’t likely to go tomorrow. I’m disappointed in the lack of will to fund NASA to work on those challenges. Sure, it’s a long way to go, but we could have been closer if the average non-geek hadn’t started losing interest in manned space flight somewhere around Apollo 12. I don’t hear anyone saying “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this [century] is out, of landing a [hu]man on [Mars] and returning him [or her] safely to the Earth.”

Even if “no single space project in this period [would] be … so difficult or expensive to accomplish,” I think it would be worth it. Almost worth it for sheer awesome alone; the engineering spinoffs would be almost pure gravy in my book. :)

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Jonathan Roth said on August 28th, 2012 at 9:29 pm

Count me as one of the hand wringers. it’s not that we haven’t solved the problems that bother me as much as the lack of effort we’ve put in. The space program hasn’t received the funding and enthusiasm of the past due to the Cold War being over. Without the “evil commies” competing with us, we’ve lost of lot of the will, and I find it sad that we aren’t as enthusiastic without that kind of an enemy. Do I want to see another enemy scare? No. I just wish we still had the will and focus to make space more of a priority. That’s all.

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mygif

Just joining in on the “yes,but…” line. Sure, a lot of the “failure to Neal’s spirit” arguments are just being overly dramatic. But they do legitimately have a point. There’s a difference between trying and failing and being denied the chance to try at all. NASA’s budget is miniscule. There is no way for them to even begin to address the technical problems of space travel with their current funding. We don’t even have any space shuttles anymore. Talk all you want about the difficulties of spaceflight. Just don’t use that as an excuse to drop the concept altogether.

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mygif

I agree with Jonathan and others who feel that much of the public support for science and exploration is eroding. The enormous technical challenges you outline certainly exist, and obviously can’t be ignored. But generating the political will to tackle them is another problem altogether.

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mygif

FFS.

Global space budget in 1975 (constant 2007 dollars, billions. Let me repeat that, because someone always gets this wrong: CONSTANT DOLLARS, already adjusted for inflation.)

NASA ~11
USSR ~5

1975 total: about $16 billion

Global space budget in 2011 (constant 2007 dollars, billions)

NASA ~19
E.U. ~4.5
Russia ~3.9
China ~2.0
India ~1.0
Japan ~0.4
Brazil ~0.3
Others (Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Korea, Indonesia) ~0.6
2011 total: about $31.7 billion

Now, US spending on space has declined as a relative proportion of government spending. (Though not by as much as you think.) However, in absolute terms it has increased by about 75% — and world spending on space has about doubled, because there are ever more players in the game.

So when you say stuff like “we’ve lost a lot of the will” (argh) and “public support for space is eroding” — well, sorry, but the numbers don’t actually bear this out. Space is actually doing OK. Not great, but OK.

Doug M.

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Now, NASA is currently going through a bit of a budget crisis, and the proposed FY 2013 budged includes some brutal cuts, especially to space science. But this is pretty much entirely because of the massive cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Said massive cost overruns took place because — I’m not even exaggerating here — NASA presented a completely bullshit budget for the Webb, Congress grinned and said “okay, heh heh, whatever”, and the space community leapt to their feet and applauded wildly. Everyone who paid the slightest bit of attention knew that the Webb was going to come in billions over budget, but everyone figured that, hey, it would all work out come the day.

The day has come, and the Obama administration has basically told NASA that, sorry, that money will have to come from other NASA projects — in this case, space science. And the same space community that was rah rah go! for the Webb is suddenly all, oh my God, the socialist in the White House HATES SPACE.

Not that I’m cranky or anything. But if you’re a space enthusiast, and you didn’t speak up about the Webb back when it first started going over budget — which was in 2005, people — or at least during the first truly massive cost overruns (2008), the first budget review (2009), or the second budget review (2010) — then, you know, STFU. You don’t get to complain about a chicken coming home to roost if you tenderly raised the goddamn bird from an egg.

Doug M.

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Final point: we are currently in a golden age of space exploration.

We’re bombing the Moon for water, mapping methane lakes on Titan, and watching solar flares in realtime in 3-D. We’re getting ready to fly by Pluto. We just dropped an SUV on Mars. We’re mapping the inner solar system down to a few meters of resolution and doing sample returns from comets. We’ve got the International Space Station (ISS), now into its second decade of operation and approved at least a decade more. In terms of technology, we’ve got fully functional ion drives, a working prototype solar sail, and the ISS solar panel systems producing enough electricity to light up a small subdivision.

We’ve put landers on Titan and the polar regions of Mars. We’ve watched geysers erupt on Enceladus, lightning strikes on Venus, and found a frickin’ hexagon on the north pole of Saturn.

Here’s a thing you’ll notice, if you hang around space enthusiasts for long: there’ll be a conversation about “space exploration”, and after a bit you realize that half the people in the room are taking that to mean MANNED space exploration BY AMERICANS, with any other sort being at best a bit disreputable and at worst vaguely threatening, and the “failure” of manned US space travel seen as some sort of failure of will.

This is incredibly annoying. Yes, we no longer have a manned space program. (Although, you know, the ISS? But people always ignore that, because it’s international and therefore suspect.) But we do have a “find a thousand extrasolar planets” program, and a “let’s have a close look at Pluto, shall we?” program, and a “zip around the asteroid belt with an ion drive” program, and a “land a robot tank on Mars to blast rocks into plasma with its laser cannon” program. I think those count for something.

Doug M.

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Michael P said on August 29th, 2012 at 9:54 am

What’s the Green Lantern Theory again?

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@Michael P: Broadly speaking, Green Lantern’s power is only limited by his willpower. His ring can do *anything* if he *wants* it bad enough. The “Green Lantern Theory” is an application of that principle: the idea that we can do anything, anything at all, if only we had the willpower to do it.

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MonkeyWithTypewriter said on August 29th, 2012 at 10:19 am

We’re bombing the Moon? Uatu! NOOOO!

Also I’d recommend Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach for anyone interested in the less “sexy” aspects of space exploration.

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express said on August 29th, 2012 at 11:40 am

We’ve put landers on Titan and the polar regions of Mars. We’ve watched geysers erupt on Enceladus, lightning strikes on Venus, and found a frickin’ hexagon on the north pole of Saturn.

We’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. We watched c-beams glitter in the dark near Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like… tears… in rain.

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Kid Kyoto said on August 29th, 2012 at 3:29 pm

@Doug M, thanks for the really great posts. Do you (or any other posters) have thoughts about why we need human spaceflight?

Is there a good explanation for why we should spend fortunes and risk lives when probes seem to be doing OK?

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Jonathan V said on August 29th, 2012 at 8:40 pm

On the Cosmic Ray front, the current measurements say that people would survive the trip out there with Apollo Era Technology (assuming a 9 month trip). It’s the trip /back/ that would kill them.

One of the important things to understand, however, is that there are a lot of people willing to take the one-way trip to Mars. Let’s face it: It’s Mars. The reason they don’t do it is because, well, it’s NASA. Their ideology is that if they’re going to put someone somewhere, they’re going to bring them back as well.

Anyways…

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@Kid Kyoto:

With the possible exception of adventure tourism, human spaceflight makes no sense, unless we intend for someone to go out there, put down stakes, and live.

I think we will, sooner or later. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to bend the cost curve down to a point where it’s reasonable. But I think we have a collective unscratchable itch that will drive us to do it.

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mygif

But living on planets is inherently unreasonable. Island 3 style habitats and asteroid mining get the same pros without as many drawbacks.

I mean, yeah, landing on Mars is cool, but (with the exception of the classified military raid on Cydonia in 1999.) basically pointless in and of itself. Knock on effects might be great, but you can’t know that going in.

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@Bret: Two words. Radiation shielding. On a planet, you have several thousand miles of rock between you and the toasty goodness. Also, gravity. We kind of need it. Not only for biological reasons, but it’s a stone bitch assembling things and getting them to stay put in free-fall. The difficulties escalate rapidly as the size of the thing increases.

Mind you, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do both. I’m just saying that living on a planet offers some pretty important advantages.

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Sean D. Martin said on August 31st, 2012 at 3:52 pm

but it’s a stone bitch assembling things and getting them to stay put in free-fall.

But being able to build in low/”zero” gravity has distinct advantages, too. So, y’know, six of one…

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AND Island 3s?

Rad shielding and functional gravity for inhabitants are built right in. Building one would be an effort, yes (although less than colonizing a planet other than good old Earth), but once it’s built, it’s as perfect an environment as you could want for living in.

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