≡ Menu

Making the Case for Deep Space

I get few questions that are harder to answer than ‘what happened to the sense of adventure that we once had with Apollo?’ And there are few questions I get more often, usually accompanied by ‘how are we going to do starflight if we don’t even have the will to go back to the Moon?’ Both questions have unsettling answers, but the second question is open-ended. We can hope that the ‘sense of sag’ that Michael Michaud describes in talking about the post-Apollo period (for manned flight, at least) may itself evolve into something else, something far more hopeful.

But let’s dwell a moment on the first question. I’ve been looking over an essay Michaud wrote for Spaceflight in the mid-1970s, a decade of the Pioneers and the Voyagers, but also a decade when it became clear that our presence on the Moon with Apollo was going to be a short-lived affair. Instead, we were talking about Skylab, about docking operations between Soviet and American spacecraft, and the next big ticket item on the manned spaceflight agenda looked to be a reusable space shuttle. NASA wanted to deliver measurable returns, even when many of us were thinking ‘Wait! Weren’t we supposed to be headed on to Mars by now?’.

There were plenty of reasons for what some considered to be a more realistic assessment of Earth’s needs. The critics of Apollo argued that it was played as a card in the great geopolitical game of the Cold War, set up as a contest between two super-powers so that achieving the Moon meant the ‘race’ was over. We were dealing with enormous demands on spending, and space projects that could produce quantifiable results were the currency of the day. Instead of manned missions to the Moon, the goal was scientific observation of the Earth to improve our understanding of our ecosystem, to upgrade communications, to streamline navigation.

Nearby Space in Context

To our credit, the exploratory impulse remained, as the Pioneer and Voyager triumphs attest. But are we as a species destined to stay on the Earth or just above it in close orbit, letting our machines be our surrogates in deep space? A prolific essayist and author (Contact with Alien Civilizations (Copernicus, 2007),. Michaud is a former diplomat with global experience in US science policy. He argues here that such a limited view of manned spaceflight goes against the impulse that has long driven us toward expansion. Remember, this perspective is from the 1970s — our ‘sense of sag’ has been with us a long time:

Historically, spaceflight has had a philosophical purpose: to carry man to the stars. From early pioneers such as the Russian Tsiolkovsky and the American Goddard to contemporary writers such as Arthur C. Clarke, there was a consistent line of thinking: build the machines that will allow man to escape the confines of Earth and explore the Universe, and expand the realm of the human race. But military exploitation of the rocket and Cold War competition in space diverted our thinking, and Project Apollo ultimately left us unsatisfied because it had a short-term goal and did not lead directly to anything else. While Apollo proved that man could reach another sphere, it did not leave a step to be built upon.


Image: Saturn V at twilight and, at upper left, its target. Credit: NASA.

I agree completely with Michaud that a major problem with Apollo was the fact that it was in every sense a crash program. The US found itself, post-Sputnik, trying to catch up to a rapidly moving Soviet program that was setting new records in space almost monthly. In fact, looking back at how we pushed the envelope with missions like Apollo 8, I’m astounded that we didn’t lose more than one Apollo crew (and at that, the one we did lose died in a training accident). We put a crew on a never-before attempted journey outside Earth orbit to the Moon and back, launching Apollo 8 with a rocket that had never been used for a manned mission (Apollo 7 flew a less powerful variant of the Saturn rocket). It seemed dicey at the time, but from the perspective of half a century later, it seems like utter folly. The results were, of course, magnificent.

But while we still play Apollo 8’s Christmas Eve transmission from lunar orbit on YouTube and elsewhere, we’re trying to work out the next bold steps for the manned space program in a very tentative way. If Mars is truly our objective, it’s an objective that’s only vaguely in our plans for the 2030s, the kind of goal that all too easily recedes a decade at a time. NASA may or may not complete the Space Launch System, but are we sure what we will do with it? Elon Musk wants to die on Mars — does SpaceX and Falcon Heavy awaken any sort of Apollo-like passion?

Spaceflight and Evolution

For some of us, the old passion never died, but when it comes to the general public, we’re dealing with a case that has to be made all over again. If we take an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of human life, argues Michaud, is survival, as it is for all forms of life. How to broaden our survival options is a question of how we can upgrade our evolutionary potential. From the essay:

The tools for the improvement of our survivability are guided evolution, conflict limitation, a balanced relationship to our Earthly environment, and space flight. The first three can improve our chances anywhere that humans live, but are presently limited to the Earth’s biosphere. Only space flight can give man the option of surviving no matter what happens on Earth, of spreading the human race throughout the universe, of opening up new environments for long-term human evolution.

There’s that phrase again: ‘long-term.’ To engage the public in a program for human expansion into the cosmos is to reverse the Apollo preoccupation with crash programs and near-term wins. A rational program to achieve starflight is not likely to happen against a ticking clock. Rather, it will be an effort that sustains itself philosophically across the decades and centuries such an effort will require, crossing many human generations. It will be an exploratory and expansionist meme that remains alive because its triggers are fundamental to our nature as human beings.

Let me quote Edmund Burke on this, because the views of the 18th Century political theorist and philosopher are much to the point:

[Society] is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.

Specifically, spaceflight challenges human capabilities and stimulates intellectual innovation. We are forced to develop new techniques, new materials and new forms of cooperation as we engage with a frontier more hostile than any we have known. Yes, these technologies will produce tangible results on Earth, many of which are obvious, from communications to power-generation. Mastering closed biospheres will teach us a great deal about our Earth. But we are also driven on a purely intellectual level to learn more about the cosmos, an engagement that broadens our understanding of physical law and provides context for all our science.

End of the Space Race

A goal of interstellar flight is not reached with a ‘space race’ mentality, although competition can boost interim steps — it will be interesting, for example, to see how the Western democracies react to a potential Chinese presence on the Moon. But the interstellar goal is too big to be comprehended by its individual components. It is a goal that begins in the short-term to expand our presence in the Solar System, reaping rewards like enhanced energy production and access to materials made available through exploitation of asteroids and other resources. There is in Michaud’s view a powerful encouragement to international cooperation in all this, for cutting costs if nothing else. Underlying early expansion is the reduction of existential risk, but also the possibility of diversifying the species as humans in new environments inevitably adapt.

Culturally, there is little to parallel the growth in philosophical perspective that may be gained by interacting with societies beginning to take hold in O’Neill-style colonies or on nearby planets like Mars, just as the Renaissance in Europe was bolstered by the influx of ideas and commodities from voyages of exploration. We might add a SETI imperative as well. If we do one day make contact with an extraterrestrial species, our own development off our world will likely be seen as an evolutionary step that is reproduced elsewhere in the universe. The potential growth in knowledge from such contact emphasizes space-based strategies to maximize the search.

All of these are short-term but necessary goals, each building on the other. But unlike Apollo, the species must have the broader context to work with. As Michaud writes:

Even if funding for major new projects seems unlikely now, interest must be kept alive. Industrial, labour, military, and scientific interests will continue to be important for the future of space flight, but farsighted political leaders also must mobilize public support with the excitement of exploration and discovery, of expansion and new opportunities, of the change in man’s place in the universe. They must hold out the promise of new and better lives, not just for a few astronauts, but for ordinary people.

None of this is easy to sell, but the collapse of interest post-Apollo should not be allowed to take hold as an inevitable consequence of success in space. The argument for a deep space exploration program is one that needs to be made again and again, for public sentiment changes slowly without precipitating events. But interplanetary growth must not become an end in itself. Interstellar flight, as Michaud reminds us, is open-ended. It opens before us an all but infinite frontier. That frontier is woven into our psychological and philosophical DNA as much as it is entwined with our evolutionary need for survival. We must continue to make the case.

The paper is Michaud, “After Apollo,” Spaceflight Volume 15 (October 1973), pp. 362-367.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • william January 19, 2015, 14:06

    This comment is directed to Dr. Albert Jackson , who is an often regular contributor on this website. Doctor Jackson has often spoken about the fact that he worked in the simulator area during the Apollo missions, and I’m wondering if he could possibly shed some light on the following questions that I have. If there is anyone else who also could answer the following questions I put the same questions to them here below.

    First off, a little background; I’ve been reading several books simultaneously and in doing so I have found some interesting information concerning the moon flights. One book I am reading is a technical book called ‘Space Trajectories’ which is a 1960 technical compilation of papers regarding possible lunar flights and a mathematical underpinnings behind it. From my readings of this book, it appears that with regards to the mathematics behind lunar trajectories. The mathematical theory appears to be relatively simple. Surprisingly, based upon what the authors had to say it takes about 100 commands in computer programming language to completely quantify the total problem of computing a lunar trajectory to whatever precision is required. That was the first surprise that I gotten from reading this book.

    However, in contrast, I have also been reading a book called ‘Digital Apollo’ which is a far more layman’s type book rather than a mathematical treatment of the problem of lunar trajectory paths. Nonetheless, I specifically remember that to perform a computation of a lunar trajectory to satisfy a specific mission required (as they described it in the book) huge stacks of printouts that they had done on a trajectory at the Johnson space Center back then. How do I reconcile these two completely different views as to how this problem was handled ?

    Thus I am asking a very specific question concerning the amount of effort and the approach that was taken into handling these various problems. To further add a bit more confusion to the mix, my understanding was that for any given single mission, there was multiple computations regarding that particular Apollo mission’s possible trajectory flight paths, so as to obtain various flight profiles depending upon some particulars surrounding that mission.

    I know this is a technical question, and I am also seeking a very technical answer to it because I’m extremely interested in this.

  • Tulse January 19, 2015, 14:58

    does SpaceX and Falcon Heavy awaken any sort of Apollo-like passion?

    They sure do for me. Musk seems to be perhaps the only public figure promoting that passion in any concrete way.

  • ljk January 19, 2015, 15:27

    The Quagmire of The Apollo Space Program

    Posted on January 18, 2015 by dennis wingo

    Editor Note: Hyperlinks in this article are direct links to referenced documents discussed in this missive.

    Why the Lessons of Apollo Have Still Not Been Learned 50 Years Later

    There is an old saying that history is his-story, or the story of whoever the victors are in war or society. We know that Roman and Greek civilization was superior to others at the time because we have the Roman and Greek records that tell us so. The Celts or Chinese might have thought differently. In some respects the same is true of all history. This is not to indict historians that have written on the subject of space but it is to say that everyone has a viewpoint and sometimes the official history does not fully illuminate a subject.

    I have never been satisfied with the “official” NASA history of the Apollo program. I lived in Huntsville Alabama for a long time and it mystified me to an extreme why we did not at least launch the last two flight worthy Saturn V’s and their payloads, Apollo’s 18 and 19. Over the years since I left the computer industry in 1987 and moved to Huntsville to begin my space career I have collected a pretty good library of space books and I have read them all. I have participated in conferences, talked to and worked with many Apollo veterans, and have been a part of NASA’s attempts at new efforts to get exploration beyond Earth orbit going. None of it has ever made sense to me, so I have spent time researching the history to try to understand why we were able to do it then, and why it has been so hard since Apollo to make progress.

    To me the best history is the Pulitzer prize winning book “The Heavens and the Earth, A Political History of the Space Age” by Walter McDougall. I read the book probably twenty five years ago but did not fully understand its importance. I re-read it often now. The official NASA history, NASA SP-4407, “Exploring the Unknown” edited by Dr. John Logsdon is also a great resource. Chapter two was written by Dr. Logsdon (which is an excerpt of his 1970 book “The Decision to Go to the Moon“) deals directly with the history of the Apollo program. There is an extensive bibliography of histories but these two encapsulate the prevailing consensus. However…..

    Full article here:


  • Dmitri January 19, 2015, 15:35

    Magnificent timing, Paul, magnificent!

    European Space Agency released today Moon peaceful conquer inspiring video Destination: Moon.

    Literally hours ago.


  • Andrew Palfreyman January 19, 2015, 15:42

    We still have zero experience in space-based manufacturing. But we have an orbiting base called ISS. The trouble is that its occupants do nothing useful; they go there and then return to Earth. While they are up there, they might as well make themselves useful by building something. Raw materials? – from the Moon. Objective? – a 1 gee rotating space station.

    How hard can that all be?

  • spaceman January 19, 2015, 15:57

    Spreading out into the Universe is our ultimate test as a species, as we will surely go extinct here on Earth due to some natural or man-made mega-catastrophe if we fail to meet this challenge. This is not to say that humanity doesn’t have other highly important priorities, such as eliminating poverty, preserving nature, improving healthcare, and minimizing conflict; however, it is a false dichotomy to see these earthbound priorities as being in competition with our cosmic expansion. Especially if we succeed in tackling these other critical issues, how sad it would be if we (and most of the other creatures great and small) get snuffed out due to our inability to see space as anything more than a repository to put telecommunications satellites, spy satellites, and the occasional scientific instrument.

  • NS January 19, 2015, 16:29

    Space exploration faces many obstacles that earlier explorations of the Earth didn’t. A couple:

    Technological. Explorers like Columbus and Magellan used essentially off-the-shelf technology for their voyages. Much of this technology was developed over the previous decades as part of shorter-distance explorations. How are we to do this in space? Mars for instance is roughly a hundred times farther away than the Moon (at least in travel time). What are the plausible intermediate steps?

    Short-term return. Columbus brought back enough interesting things from his first voyage to immediately inspire a larger-scale expedition. The spices brought back by Magellan’s exploration paid for the entire trip, even though only one ship out of five survived. Where in space are similar things (what someone here called low-hanging fruit) to be found?

    I’m sure there are many others that will be discussed here.

  • Paul Gilster January 19, 2015, 16:34

    Tulse writes:

    They sure do for me. Musk seems to be perhaps the only public figure promoting that passion in any concrete way.

    I agree! Now to spread the passion…

  • Etienne Vandamme January 19, 2015, 16:42

    These ressources are helium3, and other rare metals and materials easily found on the moon and in asteroids.

  • Harold Daughety January 19, 2015, 17:16

    I watched the first Apollo landing as a 29 year old with an infant son. There was a lot of excitement at work among the science-trained staff but not as much as an LSU/Alabama football game among the others. It appeared to me as the program went on that to many it was like watching reruns on TV. I suggested to a colleague that if the TV ratings had not fallen the program might have been renewed for another season. The football analogy seems apt: we were in competition with the Soviets. We beat them six to zip, and half the stadium was empty by halftime. It became a matter of been there, done that.
    There was no evident public interest in exploration. It was an us against them competition. Kennedy’s speech got applause but did not really generate the enthusiasm for a long term effort. My dad, born in 1911, was sure it was all fake, for everybody knows that if you were on the moon you would fall off.
    I do not think spreading humanity throughout the stars hold any general interest. We all die individual deaths, and for us the world ceases to exists. The Age of Exploration was to gain wealth and power, not to establish Our People in foreign lands. I do not think we as a species have it within our psyche to Boldly Go wherever. Over the next hill, into new lands, to raise our family and build a better life does not translate into establishing a future presence on new worlds. A spirit of adventure may drive some individuals, but not the human race. But individuals cannot, without a deus ex machina common in science fiction, go there, and those are woefully scarce.

    I am saying this only as the observations of a lifetime, one that is limited. What will take my life is with me, and that, oddly enough, is a comfort. My spiritual beliefs are sincere, unique and personal, and mine alone. I encourage those who have the burning desire to explore to first study human psychology and then design a workable plan for the Grand Migration to the stars.

  • Mike Jude January 19, 2015, 18:06

    I am taking a course in Space Economics and our professor had us listen to a talk that XCOR president, Jeff Greason, gave to an NSS forum on the subject of space colonization. It was illuminating to say the least. His point is that centrally planned economies don’t work, have never worked and will never work. Why do we think central planning will work in the context of space exploration? The fact is that the people we are sending into space have no incentive to improve things. They don’t own their equipment, their intellectual property…not even their time. If we are ever going to have a star faring civilization, then we have to give people, not serfs, a reason for going into space. We need to give people the freedom to succeed or fail and trust that they will succeed more often than not. There’s more, but you get the drift.

    Nevertheless, it seems to me, that we are still thinking in terms of massive government projects that only succeed politically. Instead of central planning, let’s try open markets. Apollo was exciting because we were building a pyramid, but then we buried the pharaoh. Everyone was excited until the tomb was closed (Apollo was on the moon), but then there was the plowing and planting and the pyramid was still there to see, if you cared to. If people had been allowed to own a piece of the pyramid and charge the dynasty rent for the sarcophagus, people would still be building them.

    Jeff challenges us to think in different terms about space (not that you don’t!!), but asking how to recapture the excitement of Apollo misses the point, I think. A better way would be to ask, how can we confer moon ownership rights to entrepreneurials? How about, if you relocate your corporate HQ to the moon and staff it full time, you will be exempt from federal corporate income tax for the next 100 years? Or maybe, anything produced on the moon will be duty and tax free…forever. See, it wouldn’t be that hard for us to go back….just turn business loose. Then one day, as some poor schlep gets off the Earth Moon shuttle to go to work, he will look up at the sky, see Earth, and think, “boy is this cool!” That’s when you will recapture that Apollo feeling :-)


  • Marcel Williams January 19, 2015, 19:22

    Forcing NASA to remain at LEO over the past 40 years really hasn’t helped private industry to move forward in space.

    If NASA had been allowed to set up an outpost on the lunar surface twenty or thirty years ago, private commercial industries would probably already be on the Moon and probably also on Mars.

    Government financed pioneering is almost always followed by commercial privateers. The $200 billion a year commercial satellite based telecommunications industry is a perfect example of what can result after governments began launching the first satellites into space.

    Paralyzing ‘Good Government’ enterprises doesn’t help the economy– it hurts it! NASA needs to be allowed to start pioneering beyond LEO again by first setting up permanent outpost on the Moon and then on Mars. And I guarantee you that, once again, the privateers will follow!


  • NS January 19, 2015, 19:27

    Not sure Etienne Vandamme’s comment was a response to mine, but in the nearly 50 years since we started exploring the Moon’s surface, I haven’t seen much actual commercial interest in what was found there. It doesn’t seem to be on the radar for any corporations that might be in a position to exploit it.

    Mike Jude overlooks e.g. the enormous amount of government spending that preceded and enabled the private sector in the U.S.: the early canal system, land grants and exploration for rail routes, military/national security spending on aviation and the internet, freeways, the early space program.

  • Harold Daughety January 19, 2015, 19:39

    The energy cost of leaving the earth’s gravity well precludes general goods manufacturing in space, and the additional cost of leaving the moon’s gravity well just pushes the profit motive even farther into the improbable.
    The old paradigms do not apply. In each century only a few hundred people will go from earth to space, and fewer still to the moon.

  • Jer January 19, 2015, 22:14

    I believe that we will have a large and widespread human presence in cislunar orbit before 2050. It will be significant and lead to quick jumps in extra-solar flight technology, resource security on earth, and tremendous opportunities for the tourism and education sectors. But it will not be planned, glorious, and barely be quantifiable in the sense that we know each and every thing about all our launches and space activities to date. It will be reminiscent of Gold Rush California – mid-19th century. I am talking about outposts, industrial/ resource production, small-claims proprietorship, and the workings of countries and corporations who kowtow to no international treaty, law, or agreement. It will be lucrative, deadly, and barely organized – but it will foster an infrastructure, spread beyond our satellite’s orbit, that will create the first adhoc outer-planets-bound craft – likely a loosely constructed, one-way, near-suicide mission outwards. It will not be until many decades of wildcat exploitation and homesteading of moon, asteroid, and other bodies will there be a great accumulation of technology and vision, that perhaps an interstellar ‘designed’ craft and mission will be made. But first, the ill-advised and devil-may-care entrepreneurs need to make their claims, take their risks, and push the frontier with venture capitalist-like nerves of steel. Otherwise, we are doomed to stumble around underfunded government programs, lukewarm academic projects, and fascinating-but-oh-so unsatisfying telescope projects that point towards a galaxy teeming with opportunity – but not for the armchair adventurer. Elon Musk may be the next Samuel Brannan, calling ‘water! water! water!’ from the first significant excavation of the invaluable resource of an extra-earth entity. The start of a rush that will lead to us to the stars – though perhaps starting ignominiously. That was not the 60s, but it will be the start in the next 60s.

  • William Collins January 19, 2015, 23:27

    I have often suspected that the legendary premise that the drive to explore the cosmos is within the human DNA. (as a species ) is a dubious proposition at best.
    Having said that , I believe that we have to go out from our beloved Blue Planet. We will need to develop a solar system wide interplanetary economic structure as a necessary step to interstellar exploration and expansion into the nearby star systems. While I do not find either warp drives , FTL, or traverable wormholes to be likely forms of transit, I do belief that humans will spread out into the galaxy, albeit gradually, as we spread over the this planet in previous ages not just the European expansion into the Americas, et al.

  • Joy January 20, 2015, 6:00

    @ Harold Daughety – agree!

    Dennis Wingo’s piece is an important article and everyone should read it. The other thing is that people need to understand who dictate what Dennis called the political space program – and everything else.

    An entry level reader into real politics is David Rothkopf’s book “Superclass” in which he lionizes the 30 great families who own this planet and the 6000 or so top minions who manage it for them. The great houses are so inbred, not a one of them has produced a significant mind for generations, and none care about space. They like living like kings, which requires peasants (if not serfs or outright slaves). There are no servants in space, so why go?

    The so called “technocrat” minions are scientific illiterates who come from backgrounds in economics, media, politics, law etc. If they had any greatness of spirit, they wouldn’t have gotten their jobs. What they do care about is underage hookers on private islands, blow, and even darker appetites. No hope for space from this quarter.

    At the bottom end, even in the USA, most people now life paycheck to paycheck. Few could pay cash for a new car, much less a spaceship. What these people think does not matter. Even if they could be persuaded to vote for space, (good luck with that, unless you control one of the 6 corporations who own all major media) – they will never be given that opportunity.

    Elon Musk is in a unique position. He is a space cadet (I say that fondly) with a small fortune. (Musk is a mere billionaire, and new money at that – the grand old houses count their fortunes in the trillions.) None the less Elon CAN afford to build spaceships. Therefore, at this point, he is the only man that matters.

    PS: For all of those rolling their eyes at talk of trillionaires, note that financial derivatives are up to a quadrillion $. Not a typo, 10^15, really and truly. That would be $140,000 per capita for the planet – including babies in Africa. In the wealthy US, I read that the median net worth for U.S. HOUSEHOLDS headed by people aged 55 to 64 is a mere $143,964. Most of those houses will have at least 2 people in them, but these middle aged Americans households can barely reach the world per capita derivative wealth for a single person! Most of the people in the world have far less. So where is all this digital wealth? Someone must own it, and they don’t care about space.

  • mike shupp January 20, 2015, 7:53


    Interesting question. Here’s a one word partial answer: mascons

    And here’s a two word partial answer: limited fuel

    I.e., the moon is not an idealized spherical body. Nor is the earth. And actual working spacecraft are not ideal point sources whose trajectories we control with perfect precision. So in principle, we can calculate the path a spacecraft takes with a few equations; in practice, things become complicated.

    As a terrestrial analogy, consider the mechanics of driving your car to work. You can write the necessary directions on the back of an envelope and give them to another driver (“right turn at Madison, then left at the second light”) and it seems adequate. Give the same instructions to one of Google’s self-driving cars, and the vehicle will never get out of your driveway without a good compluter, a couple of comm links, and several tetrabytes of data.

  • ljk January 20, 2015, 10:49

    When you have people like Newt Gingrich suggest a manned lunar base by 2020 as he did during the 2012 U.S. Presidential elections and have everyone on both sides ridicule him for an idea that would have gotten applause and support 50 years earlier (Mitt Romney infamously said he would fire any underling who dared to approach him with such an idea), you have a big problem. One that requires a major education effort for the public for starters – but will it happen?

    NASA has not helped the situation: They already seem to be wavering on their plan to capture a planetoid with a manned mission. They say they are going to put astronauts on Mars in the 2030s while the NASA administrator dismisses a similar effort for the Moon, but so far we have one unmanned Orion test for all that talk. The ISS continues to be uninspiring and I defy anyone to find an average citizen who knows what they do aboard the station in terms of science and technology research without having to look it up.

    Even NASA Television falters when it comes to being both inspiration and educational. Watching the folks in Mission Control sit in front of their monitors makes the proverbial monitoring of grass growing seem exciting in comparison. Their educational programs come across as very cheesy and amateur, and just because they are aimed at children should not be an excuse. Today’s kids expect good graphics among other things and NASA should be able to do that.

    This article on NASA TV is from 2009 but the problems still persist:


    NASA’s “product” should be able to sell itself, so why aren’t they doing it? They and the space buffs cannot be too shocked when they find that the public continues to spend tons of money on bad science fiction over the real thing.

  • Alex Tolley January 20, 2015, 16:23

    @joy – derivatives take both sides of the bet : long/short, put/call. So when netted out, they are much smaller in value. Arguably close to zero. Same with currencies, where trade volumes vastly exceed the underlying currency value.

    This is not to decry your characterization of the oligarchs, but you vastly overestimate their wealth based on the derivatives figures you use.

  • Harold Daughety January 20, 2015, 16:41

    @ljk –
    I watched Apollo 13 The Movie, and I watched Appllo13,The Happening. The movie is entertainment. I knew what the outcome was. The Happening was gut-wrenching fear, cold sweat, hyperventilation, and no one knew the outcome until it was over. If NASA or any other agency puts up the potential tragedy of dying, real time, in space as a drama to be milked, they should be shot.
    I have worked through mini crises – nothing but money and possibly someone’s well-paying job was at risk. Still, it was all business in morning meetings. Facts. Numbers. Rational planning. New assignments. One new technical employee tried to put a little drama into the meeting, and the project leader remarked with disgust, “Just do your damn job . . .” and we missed that fellow at the next meeting. That is reality and it is not very entertaining.

  • Alex Tolley January 20, 2015, 17:13

    Every revolutionary idea–in science, politics, art or whatever–seems to evoke three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the phrases: (1) It’s completely impossible. (2) It’s possible, but it’s not worth doing. (3) I said it was a good idea all along. – ARTHUR C. CLARKE, The Promise of Space

    I tend to think that this means that big ideas like space exploration cannot be achieved by consensus. Rather individuals will push an idea and if it succeeds people and businesses will develop around it. This may seem rather Victorian in approach, but that age did seem to produce some heroic engineering even if with government funding. The early air age was similar. Arguably the private entrepreneurs did better than the government, eg Wrights vs Langley. Aircraft, airlines all developed privately and with commercial aims.

    I’m not convinced space is different. Mapping & path finding is a public good that should be government supplied if necessary. But crewed flight should be a private venture and economics should dictate the human vs robot decision. Science should be a public good and science can piggyback on commercial ventures. But the driver will need to be commercial if we expect development in any big way. That will support the technology development and reduced costs for other motives.

    Despite the naysayers, this seems to be the approach taken by SpaceX. Develop cheaper technology based on earlier technology development. Aim for commercial payback. Drive down costs so that volume expands. This will drive demand, expand the market and in turn other businesses will serve these markets. Bigelow should be able to capitalize on this once it is clear that a comfortable destination is needed by travelers. I see this as a much more viable route that government space flight. It is the difference between Antarctic research stations and commercial development of resources – eg island tourism.

    Consensus ideas can change. “Destination Moon” invoked military need, reflected half a century later for Star Wars defense – both of which proved wrong, and of course without self funding sustainability.

    So bottom line I see generating interest no so much to build consensus, but rather to stimulate the next entrepreneurs.

  • RobFlores January 20, 2015, 19:39

    It would probably require re-engineering the fuel and oxidizer tanks,
    but I ‘ve always wondered what kind of performance you get if you SLED launch a Saturn V rocket, using gravity to give you terminal velocity before ignition launching at the Equator.
    To juice things up maybe light the works up using shuttle sized-SRB on either side Plus the 5 x F1 engines . What would the addition to the Tonnage to LEO would be. My intuition says somewhere between 50%-75%

  • ljk January 20, 2015, 19:43

    Why humans should go to Mars and other places in space

    In a recent newspaper op-ed, a university scientist argues against human exploration of Mars, claiming the money would be better spent on other scientific activities here on Earth. John Strickland argues against that mindset, provided human Mars missions are done in a more affordable, sustainable way.

    Monday, January 19, 2015


  • ljk January 20, 2015, 22:49

    I am not asking that astronaut lives be put in danger to make the space program “exciting”. I was just as turned off by the fact that Apollo 13 did not seem worthy of coverage by the television networks until the spaceship exploded and the crew’s lives were at stake as Jim Lovell’s wife was in the 1995 film version of the real thing.

    I also hope for the day that those business people who make meetings and money the reality that they expect the rest of our society to step in line with become anachronisms and embarrassments to our descendants, who will be the ones who have to live beyond Earth and realize with immediate urgency that the rest of the Universe doesn’t give a flying fig about human wants and needs and attitudes that may have worked great in small groups in a cave but mean nothing to a true reality far vaster and older and much more important.

    Here is a paper by Robert Zubrin on how to make Mars colonization viable, since current humanity is so in love with the bottom line:


    The Cosmos should be exciting and enriching on its own merits. The sad fact that most humans have little understanding and appreciation for the way things really are only means that they will be left out of the Big Picture due to their own limitations and self-serving attitudes. Humanity is the one that has much to do and prove to the real reality that it is worthy of a place in existence. We shall see what happens.

    Just remember that our whole civilization and every member of the species could vanish tomorrow and the Universe would carry on as it has for the vast majority of its 13.7 billion year existence without us.

  • William Collins January 20, 2015, 23:17

    Back in December 1070, I was on a temporary military assignment at Patrick Air Force Base, FLA, I had the privilege of witnessing the last Apollo Moon Launch – “a night shot”. It was simply beautiful./breathtaking.. I just knew that a moon base was on the way with a Mars shot to follow within 20 years. Twenty-five years later, I witnessed the return of the Space Shuttle from Edwards Air Force Base back to the same Patrick Air Force Base. Magnificent as that ship was, there is no moon base nor any manned Mars missions. That disappointed me greatly.
    I believe that governments will drive exploration of space and private enterprise will drive the economic exploitation of interplanetary space.. It is a peculiarly American premise that private enterprise will be the primary vehicle to open interplanetary space to humankind.

  • IB January 21, 2015, 13:24

    Musk and SpaceX have reignited the old passion in a way that constantly surprises me. SpaceX is relentlessly innovative, has a clear, bold vision and is shaking up the old order. Right now he’s the best chance we have of getting our first foothold on Mars.

  • Rob Henry January 21, 2015, 18:05

    @everyone, don’t forget the positive psychological effect of Sputnik and Apollo. To an unprecedented degree the world backed first the Soviets, then the Americans, not through fear, but because they wanted to join in as part of a glorious future. One that never came!

    @Joy, be careful of mixing measures of wealth and power. All those derivatives must be backed by something in case they go south, and that something is too large to be their money – so unless they balanced those derivatives against each other with great precision (and only they would know that) it must ultimately fall to us or their banks to bail them. Now that’s power! But can they use that sort of leverage fund commercial space adventures whose risks are harder to hide??

  • Mark Zambelli January 22, 2015, 8:44

    Tulse said on January 19, 2015 at 14:58

    ” ‘does SpaceX and Falcon Heavy awaken any sort of Apollo-like passion?’

    They sure do for me. Musk seems to be perhaps the only public figure promoting that passion in any concrete way.”

    I’ll ‘nth’ that sentiment for sure. I, like so many, are watching things unfold for Elon Musk with excited fascination and I wish SpaceX nothing but good fortune for their endeavours.

  • ljk January 22, 2015, 9:40

    We will have a real permanent presence in space beyond LEO once corporations figure out how to make money off space. Then science and prestige will follow, not the other way around.

  • NS January 23, 2015, 2:56

    “once corporations figure out how to make money off space”

    Government contracts…