The Key To The Universe

It is wishful thinking, and probably pointless, to expect a visionary politician to come along and embark our nation on a vigorous humans-to-Mars program.

That was the theme of my column a couple of weeks ago.

As I said then, it's unlikely that we'll repeat Apollo, both because the political planetary alignment that caused it is very unlikely to repeat, and because even Kennedy wasn't really particularly visionary when it comes to space.

But I also said then that if we can't expect a politician to lead us to the high frontier, I would describe the conditions that do have to be in place for it to happen.

We are presently constrained to this planet not because no one wants to go to Mars — the Mars Society puts the lie to that notion. Simply put, it's because the people who want to go can't afford to, and the people who can afford to have no (or at least insufficient) desire to spend their money in that manner. While this will probably strike people as obvious, it's useful to state it nonetheless, because it then provides guidance to potential solutions.

There are two.

The traditional one, usually espoused by lobbyists and advocates of space exploration, is to try to persuade those with the money (generally the government) that they should indeed spend it on this. This has been a notably failed strategy. Such persuasion is difficult, and even when there is an occasional success in appropriating public resources, the political process invariably perverts the activity away from the original goal, and toward ancillary partisan interests (e.g., job creation in key areas, bureaucratic empire building, coopting of the program by the State Department for promotion of international cooperation or foreign aid, etc.).

The other alternative is to reduce the cost of the effort, so that those who already want to do it can afford it. I used to have a signature on my Usenet postings to the effect that "NASA's job is not to land a man on Mars — it's to make it affordable for the National Geographic Society to land a man on Mars."

With his Mars Direct proposal, Bob Zubrin was attempting to tackle the problem from both directions: he came up with a cheaper way to get to Mars, in the hope that he could then convince someone in the government that it had therefore become affordable. However, his approach didn't tackle the real cost problem, which is the cost of getting from earth into space in the first place.

Robert Heinlein once famously wrote, "when you get into orbit, you're halfway to anywhere." Conversely, going to Mars is presently expensive because going anywhere in space is presently expensive. While Mars enthusiasts recognize this, most of them just assume that it's a law of nature, throw up their hands, and say in essence, "to heck with it — we'll just have to convince the government to go anyway."

However, high launch costs are not a consequence of any laws of physics--as I've written previously, they're a consequence of the fact that we do so pitiably little in space — there are no economies of scale.

So rather than lobbying the government to send a few people off to Mars post haste, Mars enthusiasts would be well advised to take their eyes off the prize momentarily, and instead help build a public consensus for much larger space markets, and commercial ones.

The most promising of these is public space travel and entertainment. If we can develop a robust space tourism industry, it will drive costs down, both because they have to be low for it to be a viable business, and because the potentially huge amount of activity (orders of magnitude above anything that NASA is doing, or ever plans to do) will drop the costs of access for everyone, including those who look down their noses at such "pedestrian" uses of space.

And if we can use this market to drive down those costs to the point at which the cost of the energy itself becomes significant (which is as low as it can ever go), then the National Geographic Society, or even the Mars Society, would be able to mount their own expeditions, and no longer be dependent on fickle and difficult politicians.

In addition, they will be able to do it with a clear conscience, because it will paid for by people who want topay for it, not those who are forced to. And best of all, they'll be able to ensure that it's under their control, and not hijacked for crass political purposes, as happensalmost invariably to government programs (particularly space programs).

So if you want to go to Mars, cheer on the Mark ShuttleworthsLance Basses and Lori Garvers. Support XCOR, Pioneer Rocketplane, Armadillo Aerospace, and Space AdventuresIncredible AdventuresMirCorp and the X-Prize, and all the other for-profit and non-profit organizations, too numerous to mention here, who are working hard to get all of us into space who want to go, and not just a select few.

They Never Learn

NASA and aerospace industry representatives announced results of the Space Launch Initiative's first milestone review, which narrowed the field of potential technologies and architecture designs for our nation's next reusable launch vehicle. NASA's Space Launch Initiative is designing the next-generation space transportation system by first developing the technologies needed to ensure a safer, more reliable system that can be operated at a much lower cost.

If I could spare any, I'd be pulling my hair. I hope that this is just inertia, and it's something that administrator O'Keefe will fix when he's got the ISS budget situation under control.

There should not be a single "nation's next reusable launch vehicle." That was (in economist Friedrik Hayek's words) the "fatal conceit" of both the Shuttle and of the ill-fated X-33 program. NASA has to get out of the vehicle-development business, and simply put incentives into place for private industry to develop new vehicles.

If NASA is in charge, it will be doomed to failure. If there is a single vehicle, it will be (from a cost stand-point) another Shuttle-like disaste, because it will once again be one-size-fits all, excelling at nothing.

We don't need a new launch vehicle. We need a new launch industry. And the Space Launch Initiative, in anything resembling its current incarnation, should be strangled in the cradle.


I got an abundance of email on last week's column, in which I excoriated people who believe that rocks have rights. They basically fell into two categories. Most agreed with me. Some did so in spades. These were in some ways the most entertaining (though they shouldn't be taken too seriously, and I doubt that their authors intended them to be taken so):

Reader Tony Baron cautions:

Dear Lori M.,

In the end, it does not matter what humankind does, the sun will expand to a red giant and destroy the ecosystem you cherish. The survival of the human species depends on interstellar travel. Once at a new planet, we must either adapt ourselves to the ecosystem that is there or adapt the ecosystem to us.

Greg Richey expressed the views of many when he wrote:

Your email from one "Lori M." clearly reveals the psuedo-religious bent of the latest generation of econuts. The philosophical underpinning of her viewpoint (not that she is likely to have thought them through) is that inanimate objects, rocks in space, oil in the earth, whatever, have somehow acquired rights of their own, a universal right to privacy of some sort.

The only conceivable way to get there is to imbue these lifeless objects with some kind of spirit or soul, in effect reviving the primitive pagan religions that believed trees, or rocks were gods of some sort. Many of us believe that there is a valid argument for conserving the environment for future generations. But instead, the idea is to deny both current and future generations the use of inanimate objects, because humans are nasty, smelly, evil, polluting things. But if humans aren't supposed to be allowed, then for what or whom precisely are we preserving lifeless rocks?

I hope that reader "Dan" had tongue firmly in cheek when writing:

The basic function of living systems, from e-coli to man, is to take in whatever it finds around itself and, using whatever tools it possesses, convert those surroundings into more of itself. Morals, ethics, and (arghh) religions are just mental inventions designed to keep us from killing each other, which are often used by one human monkey to parasitize another (preaching beats working for a living).

If we eat the whole universe, that's fulfilling our evolutionarily established "prime directive."


PS: There is certainly other life out there to eat...Earth First! We'll plunder the other planets later!!!

And finally, Mike Combs writes:

One day I had an epiphany. I'd been having an argument with my own "Lori M." on Usenet. I was in the back yard, and my then-4-year-old brown-haired brown-eyed daughter came running down the hill and into my arms. I decided in that moment that one trillion brown-eyed little girls running down one trillion grassy hills throughout the galaxy would be an enhancement of the state of the universe, not a diminishment of it.

And if one out of a billion of those little girls grows up to be another Hitler or Stalin, well, that's a shame, but what are you going to do? I say bring 'em on.

But of course, some were negative (and even more amusing), and I dealt with them at my weblog here and here.

On the subject of Bruce Dern starring as John McCain, Cindy Kaapke-Ventriss suggests:

Bruce Dern would be your pick? I would say Bruce Willis.

And reader Jeff Davis has a different, and perhaps better idea:

Two years ago, McCain was still a bit mainstream. Ed Norton Jr. would have been fine.

One year ago, Bruce Dern.

Now, McCain is wacky enough that I've got to go with Christopher Lloyd.

And finally, another heart-cockle warmer, and the reason that I waste my time, and Fox's bandwidth on this.

A quick note to let you know that your encouragement to get people into space isn't going to waste. I was a kid in the 60s with a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings of Gemini and Apollo, watching every launch and splashdown on black and white TV (my parents didn't get a color set until I left for college). And while the dream of space didn't die, there just didn't seem to be a way other than NASA and they may have been doing science, but they didn't have any vision.

But thanks to you informing people about all the private space efforts going on, I'm starting to get enthused again. It is not human nature to sit around, we've got to go! And to all the idiotarians: Lead, follow or get out of the way!

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

Respond to the Writer