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`Cuz I'm a rocket man! ;-)

I'm not sure how I feel about this, and I'd like to get the opinion of any and all rocket geeks out there. NASA has unveiled a new plan to return to the moon that's giving me deja vu. It seems to me to be a re-work of Apollo with only 2 significant changes:

1) The crew module and main vehicle launched separately, then do an Earth orbit rendezvous.
2) The whole damn thing is cobbled together out of surplus shuttle parts, thereby keeping Morton ThiokolATK and the other NASA contractors happy. Way to put the mission over politics, guys! :-( I'd be curious to compare the thrust/weight ratios, specific impulse, lifting capacity, etc. between the SRBs and Saturn 5. Anyone have any idea which is more capable?

I dunno. I'm not a big fan of going back to the moon anyway- at least not as a supposed stepping stone to Mars. Even if there is water ice to be had there, you still can't fully "live off the land", and the techniques that'll work best on the moon are only somewhat related to what would work best on Mars.

As a commercial venture I fully support lunar exploration/exploitation, but at this point it seems that having NASA concentrate their efforts on a return there is an unnecessary distraction (both mentally and financially) from what they *should* be focussing on.

These are just my off-the-cuff reactions. Anyone else's thoughts?

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
slutbamwalla
Sep. 16th, 2005 06:17 am (UTC)
it seems that having NASA concentrate their efforts on a return there is an unnecessary distraction ... from what they *should* be focussing on.

Out of curiosity, what do you think that should be? What do you think that NASA should be focusing on? I've heard a lot of talk about the "future of the space program", and I'd like to get your thoughts as well.
datan0de
Sep. 18th, 2005 11:21 am (UTC)
That's an excellent question, and one for which I don't have a clear answer.

The Libertarian in me says that the government's place is minimalist law enforcement, national defense, and some commerce regulation, and as such NASA is an overstepping of the purpose of government.

In actuality, I don't always agree with that sentiment. It seems to me that of greater importance is humanity's obligation to improve itself as a whole, remove barriers, and spread intelligent life throughout the universe. This often requires expensive research and development which, while ultimately profitable, will only bear fruit on a time scale beyond the short-sightedness of most corporate entities.

That said, it seems to me that the next step in our progress as a species is Mars. It's far away, but not entirely outside of our reach. It's a hostile environment, but one in which we have the capability of building a self-sustaining outpost-->colony-->civilization. ("The Case for Mars" by Dr. Robert Zubrin goes into a lot of detail about how to kick start a completely "live off the land" presence on Mars using mostly off-the-shelf technologies and proven, reliable chemistry.) It's an ambitious but attainable goal if we're willing to focus on it, and represents real progress.

I see potential commercial value in going back to the moon, but that should be done primarily by the private sector, as any NASA resources devoted to it will be resources not devoted to Mars.

Should we have a moon base? Hell yes! If it was up to me there'd be a whole mining and ore processing facility there right now. But it's not NASA's job, and I think it's important to realize the that argument of using the moon as a jump-off point to Mars is largely a fallacy. The techniques we'll use to survive on Mars are for the most part not applicable to surviving on the moon because the enviroments are so different. Mars has ideal soil composition and an atmosphere which, while thin, can be easily converted into propellant, water, and breathable air. The mechanisms for doing so have already been built and lab tested. The moon might have water ice, but that's about it as far as sustainability. As such, the technologies from one environment don't carry over to the other.

From the perspective of using the moon as a literal jump-off point to Mars, again this idea is flawed. Let's be clear here- the infrastructure necessary to build an interplanetary spacecraft is not going to exist on the moon before we have some seriously advanced nanotechnology. Mining is certainly feasible, but turning raw materials into space ships is going to be done on Earth for a long time to come. Thus, we aren't going to build a Mars ship on the moon and launch it from there. A Mars ship is going to be built on Earth, and any detour to the moon will simply incur the penalty of an additional unnecessary gravity well to launch out of with no benefit. Even if a Mars ship was built on Earth in pieces and assembled off planet, it would make more sense to do the assembly in Earth orbit rather than on the moon.

To be clear, I love the idea of a permanent human presence on the moon, and NASA's lack of focus and a worthy goal post Apollo makes me want to cry. My mom was pregnant with me when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon, but many of my friends have never had a human set foot on the moon in their lifetime, and this is inexcusable. The Apollo program should have lasted longer, and possibly should have been followed up by the establishment of a permanent presence back in the `70's, but that shouldn't be NASA's job now. Perhaps a return to the moon will serve to reignite the public's support of manned space exploration, and in that regard serve as a legitimate jump-off to Mars, but otherwise it seems to me that to put NASA on that task now will only delay and distract us from what really ought to be our next big objective.
serolynne
Sep. 16th, 2005 07:27 am (UTC)
I have no objections to returning the moon for other reasons - such as a training grounds for long term space living, experiments, commercial venture, etc. But not *just* as a stepping stone to Mars - I agree, just because it's not earth doesn't make it pre-Mars. I don't think we're ready to put a person on Mars (and if we do, we need to send a functioning polyamorous network/family to make it happen... I have a whole social/psychological commentary on that.. it certainly can't be done with fly-by-your-teeth test pilots and wild poineers that are the roots of the current space program).

Sending rovers and probes to Mars is far more feasible - financially and effort wise at this point. It's working. We're getting good data to evaluate future trips there. I don't know what the current administrations obsession is with everything needing to be moving towards manned programs. It's time we got past needing flesh present to be productive and worthwhile. Technology is very much an extension of the human mind, and every bit as much worthwhile and probably more productive.

Efforts should be going into alternative resuable vehicles, robotic enhancements, biotech and nanotech development and so much more.

Oh, and to answer your question... I believe that Saturn 5 has far more lift capacity and thrust than the shuttle SRBs. I believe that same is true even of the modern day Delta IV boosters.
datan0de
Sep. 18th, 2005 11:44 am (UTC)
I'd *love* to read your commentary on sending poly families to Mars!

The test pilots and wild pioneers have long since retired from NASA, and I actually think that the program could use a few more (particularly the pioneers).

I couldn't disagree with you more regarding robots vs humans on Mars. Our telepresence technology just isn't that sophisticated yet, and the transmission lag time between here and there is a crippling handicap. While I'm impressed and pleased by the schedule of orbiting missions, and the data we're getting from them more than justifies the (relatively low) cost, you simply can't compare our robotic exploration with the results you'd get from boots on the ground. Robots are an effective precursor to manned missions, not a replacement.

Look at it this way- Spirit and Opportunity have been doing wonderful work, but in the roughly two years they've been there they've covered 6.5 miles total. A manned mission could cover that much ground in less than a week, and so much more thoroughly!

I guess it boils down to what you see as the purpose of space exploration. If the objective is simply to collect information, and you aren't in an enormous hurry, then robots and orbiters alone should suffice. If you feel, as I do, that the goal is not just to learn about what's out there but to actually live there, then we're just not doing enough.

I do agree with you regarding the value of new vehicles and robots, and biotech and nanotech development, but I don't think that it should be a choice between one or the other. Both paths support each other.
serolynne
Sep. 19th, 2005 07:09 am (UTC)
Perhaps I didn't state myself clearly enough... I do support moving towards Mars, including colonization. However, I don't think we're to that point yet to be planning missions there without more data collection and information. We'll get there, likely well within my life span. My point is... right now... I don't want to forgo robotic and telepresence for a manned mission. I just don't believe we're ready for that, and NASA is far too beaucratic and bloated to achieve it in it's present state. Heck, they can barely sustain the shuttle program and space station efforts at this point. I believe we can and should continue on with robotic presense and exploration (something that has been quite successful) while we start re-engineering our infastructure to support more far reaching endevours.
slartibart
Sep. 16th, 2005 09:39 am (UTC)
The major pro of this plan is, of course, by using ALMOST "off-the-shelf" components, you drastically reduce the cost and time of developing launch and exploration vehicles. Realistically, using some sort of existing technology is, I think, the only way to get back to the moon by 2020 without spending an incredibly obscene amount of money.

I'm not above spending incredibly obscene amounts of money to get back to the moon, mind you, but this plan is going to have a tough time getting through congress as it is.

I think the plan is basically solid, and I'm actually encouraged by the progress. It's certainly a better use of the shuttle launch technology than launching shuttles is. The CEV is desperately needed as a shuttle replacement no matter what.

As for reasons for returning to the moon, I'll have to admit I'm a bit of a zealot on the subject. ANY reasoning that gets us back there is alright by me, and I'll tell you why. It makes it THAT much harder to stop going again. We have got to get farther away from the home world than GEO and sooner rather than later. The farther and more frequently you move forward, the harder it is to move back. Perhaps my reasoning has degenerated into a blind-faith logicless agenda from listening to Gene Cernan speak once too often, but for the sake of all that is holy, "It's time to go for another walk".

[/rant]
datan0de
Sep. 18th, 2005 11:27 am (UTC)
All good points. Thanks for the comments! (Oh, and see above.)
nekidsteve
Sep. 16th, 2005 10:35 am (UTC)
i fully support the exploitation idea. not only would we be able to use any commercial oppurtunities that arose but it would help us to develop the space presence we would need to have to get further from earth. i dont see any other way that we would be able to get to Mars unless we get industry on the moon, which would enable us to get all sorts of nifty shit done
datan0de
Sep. 18th, 2005 11:24 am (UTC)
The problem being that building industry on the moon doesn't actually buy us any significant advantages in getting to Mars. :-( See my above comment.
nekidsteve
Sep. 18th, 2005 04:10 pm (UTC)
trying to launch off of the earth doesnt buy us a significant advantages either. sure, we have the infrastructure to build ships now. but we could build ships with greater strength and more hull capacity in a lighter gravity well. granted it would take us a little longer to put the infrastructure up in the first place but i think it would be worth it in the long run. but thats my opinion. i'd rather do it better the first time than risk more than i had to. i would jump at the chance to go and settle mars either way.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )