The space pioneers

You have to wonder about the timing, if nothing else. Last week, Cato Institute researchers warned of a looming budget disaster if strong measures such as cutting the budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in half were not taken. On Monday, NASA chief Michael Griffin unveiled a new $104 billion plan for sustained human exploration of the moon by 2018 as a preparatory step for getting people on Mars. Here’s my suggestion for how to explore space without breaking the budget.


When I was a boy, a little past the middle of the previous century, I dearly loved a series of books about Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. Thinking (naively) that this might be something that could get my son more interested in reading as well, a few years ago I tracked down a vendor for this obscure series. I discovered when I bought one of these why copies of these fine works are so hard to find these days. The vision of space travel was heroic, but completely wrong. Why isn’t Tom using a computer for all these routine operations, a modern reader has to wonder (and frankly, a grown-up reader in 1962 would have had many related concerns about the literary quality). The science fiction of that time was absorbed with the advances that would be needed to make the rocket engines work, and all the amazing things that a future of space travel could bring. But the real technological miracle that occurred since the science fiction boom of the 1950′s proved to be not machines that could move, but rather machines that could think.

I’m wondering if our space program isn’t stuck in that same time warp. I am a strong advocate of basic scientific research. Understanding the details of our solar system could potentially have all sorts of benefits, benefits we can see in such things as better weather predictions and communications, and benefits we still can’t see much more clearly than the dreamers of forty years ago. But to get that knowledge, is it really necessary to send flesh and blood homo sapiens to do the job, when, frankly, our machines are so much lighter, tougher, and smarter than we are?

I suppose another moment of personal revelation for me was when the IBM computer Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess genius our species has spawned. Mahalanobis has a fun story about Eduard Nemeth, who has figured out how to use the machines’ soullessness against them and still beat the computers at chess. But I know that as gigaflops keep rising, Nemeth’s days as champ are numbered as well.


Why not admit that the real genius of our species is that we can build something that functions better than we do at a few degrees Kelvin and in a vacuum, and that can serve as our arms, eyes, as well as senses that we ourselves lack, all projected across distances of hundreds of millions of miles?

So here’s my suggestion– eliminate manned space travel entirely from NASA’s budget, and redirect 25% of that saving to unmanned space exploration. The other 75% can make a very small dent in that looming budget crisis.


40 thoughts on “The space pioneers

  1. odograph

    I’ve had this feeling that unmanned missions can accomplish our most important goals (remote sensing of earth and beyond), and that manned missions could be put off for a while (perhaps a couple decades?) while more important technical problems on earth (global warming in combination with energy policiy) are tackled.
    A seldom used and inexpensive rocket-capsule system might be a compromise for those unwilling to have no manned capability.

  2. STS

    Yes unmanned beats manned space exploration for now.
    But what we really could use now is a “space race” style mission to develop new energy technologies. As the peak oil threads on this blog have amply demonstrated, there’s a lot of interest in this problem, it’s economically important (in ways space hasn’t ever been) and relates directly to the future economic and geopolitical health of the US.
    Just as a recent expression of this idea, consider Thomas Friedman’s NYT column today:,,9Q26,.Q26uUQ26kOFDFkDQ26uUReF6Q5BNQ60DQ2BYMNh

  3. T.R. Elliott

    I completely agree. I could have screamed when congress decided to kill the superconducting supercollider to instead fund that worthless (and now dying) space station. Science took a backseat to science fiction and jobs programs. So much good science could be done with so much less money, yet we allow the pork-projects like the space station to degrade the science.
    One modification to your recommendation: divert a small percentage of the savings into programs to significantly increase the production of science fiction books and films. That way, those obsessed with human space travel can have additional material to feed their need.
    There are no scientific or engineering arguments to manned space flight. No spin offs. Maybe that was true in the early days. But no longer. There are no good arguments for human space travel at this time. Privatize it.

  4. Fred Hapgood

    Another dividend of your excellent suggestion is that manned space travel would immediately turn private with a vengance, thereby acquiring ten times the developmental momentum it as “enjoyed” under the soul-destroying hand of NASA. Not much has made me more exasperated over the years than seeing one bright space engineer after another vanish into the black hole that is NASA, never to be heard of again.

  5. odograph

    Haven’t we had a “space style race” for alternative energies since the 1970′s? I’m sure the cumulative totals for funding are up there.

  6. T.R. Elliott

    One point of clarification for my post: if we privatized human space flight, I think it would die a much needed death. It could not exist without subsidies. Perhaps a few mega billionaires could get behind the idea, but I see human space flight eventually dying off.

  7. M1EK

    “Haven’t we had a “space style race” for alternative energies since the 1970′s? I’m sure the cumulative totals for funding are up there.”
    The subsidies for oil/gas/coal and to a lesser extent nuclear have dwarfed that for “alternative energy” by orders of magnitude. It’s a right-winger fiction that wind/solar/hydro got a ton of subsidies; they got nearly squat.

  8. Fred Hapgood

    > It could not exist without subsidies.
    You won’t find many aero/astro engineers to agree with that. I’m not sure you could find even one.

  9. JD

    I am a strong advocate of basic research. But I am also an advocate of human exploration of space.
    The machines we construct today are not as capable as a human being. The observation that “…machines are so much lighter, tougher, and smarter than we are” is only partially correct.
    Lighter, yes (when you consider the weight of life support systems).
    Tougher, maybe, but when spacecraft break millions (or billions) of miles from home where there is no one around to fix even small problems so workarounds are the best mission controllers can do.
    Smarter, no way Jose! The example of the computer beating Kasparov at chess was really the triumph of brute force over skill. The machine was not really smarter, just much faster and therefore able to try many different alternatives. Spacecraft we send out to explore are always finding something that no one expected. An astronaut could incorporate the new information and alter the mission. The adaptations that do occur during automated missions are accomplished by the human controllers back on earth. Roundtrip communication time delays are far to long to allow spacecraft outside near-Earth orbit to be teleoperated in real time, so remote control is tedious and slow. And, even with a human in remote control, automated spacecraft are not as adaptable as a human on site with a few simple tools. If we continue to advance our current knowledge of spacecraft automation, it will take a very long time before the machines are as “smart” as the humans who build them.
    The cost of our space program seems to me to be a relatively small piece of the national pie and I do think it is worth every penny. However, I am skeptical that a government run program is the best approach. I strongly agree with the idea of privatization. Take recent example of Burt Rutan’s company capturing the XPrise. Rutan and some foreward thinking investors did that with very little funding. I think a govenment run program will always be much more expensive. Government funding where needed to subsidize a privately operated program would be both cheaper and faster.
    A note about the Space Station. Although that program may not achieve all the scientific goals originally envisioned by some, it has advanced international cooperation in space exploration and has been a valuable learning tool.
    The human race has been exploring new frontiers for many thousands of years. During all that time, the presence of human beings on missions of exploration has been essential. It still is.

  10. T.R. Elliott

    Fred: That’s because the aero/astro engineers are on the receiving end of all those subsidies. It’s like asking a welfare recipient if they think welfare is a bad idea.
    Look at it this way. I worked on Globalstar, the QUALCOMM LEO, for a few years. And you can also consider Iridium as another example. Iridium died and was only resurrected because the Govt subsidized it’s purchase. Globalstar is operating on an existing infrastructure that was then written off after declaring bankruptcy.
    These are systems that are barely solvent and they are created using known launch and satellite technology (granted, Iridium complicated the whole thing with inter-satellite links).
    So these systems are barely solvent, they need to start launching replacement satellites in a few years, and it’s not clear whether an economic case can be made.
    Iridium continues because the military wanted it. Globalstar continues because it has written off the capital investment and can now operate on a much lower cost basis. But what happens when billions of $$$ will be required to start launching satellites again.
    My point: these are systems with clear and precise business objectives, a market that is appreciable, and also have a humanitarian aspect to them–LEO phones work when the cells and landlines go dead.
    If these systems are barely solvent–and only so by writing off billions of dollars that went into the toilet–how do you think the idea of sending people into space to do nothing can be solvent?
    I will clarify one point. I spoke loosely. By subsidy I meant “people who want to throw money at something and know they will not receive a return.” That’s really what I meant.
    What’s the return on manned space flight? I see almost none. And therefore it requires someone who is willing to throw billions at the problem.

  11. T.R. Elliott

    JD: The space station is a total waste of money. Nothing more. The whole “working together” line is not worth the lost money. We can work together more successfuly on fusion and particle accelerators and nontechnology and energy efficiency.
    The point about failures is also bogus. With the savings of manned space flight–high reliability–I can create high REDUNDANCY systems that will have higher probabilities of success than manned flights. Most of the equipment on those manned flights exists for the humans.
    The fact that humans have been exploring is also a red herring. Exploring is great. Find someone to pay for it. Just not the tax payer. The tax payers are forced to pay for enough nonsense. Manned space flight–because it interferes with real science–is not worth it.
    By privatize it, I mean let the private sector pay for it. It will die if that decision was made.

  12. Jim

    Couldn’t agree more with the original point.
    NASA’s most brilliant successes are its unmanned probes, with probably the most impressive the Voyager probes, which decades after launch are still providing a trove of basic research data.
    The federal government should be funding basic research, that is, research where there is no probable, foreseeable economic benefit within a reasonable horizon. When the government is paying engineers to solve engineering problems, the public good which is sought should be known and tangible.
    On the other hand, one might argue that the public good served by the space and defense industries is to keep a stable of qualified engineers fed and trained as a matter of national security. But I don’t think anyone is making that argument.

  13. T.R. Elliott

    Jim: Very good point. There is an argument for maintaining a capability. DARPA and the DOD do that. I agree with that. But I also agree with you that this argument is not made here. I do think there are plenty of opportunities to maintain a capability at a much lower cost. We could be designing and launching a whole host of launch vehicles with the money current wasted on manned space flight. We could build several hubble telescopes. There are many many lost opportunities because we’re transporting food and human waste to and from that tin can mobile home in the sky.

  14. odograph

    Don’t “winger” me ;-), I’m a child of the 70′s and remember the announcements of funding, at the local, state, and federal level every year since then.
    It is also a dodge to say alternative energy research was small “relative” to anything else. If I remember correctly, the space program is small “relative” to the soft drink industry. Did that stop them?
    … I’ll be convinced by the research totals if anyone has them.

  15. odograph

    BTW, I think some people think you need a single research organization to be “space style.” I think decentralized research works better, but it also means that people don’t automatically think of the 30 years work done by SCE, PG&E, etc.

  16. Robert McLeod

    Well here’s one link on Department of Energy spending on solar and renewable R&D:

    It shows about $420 million per year. Compared to a NASA budget of about $15,000 million per year, I’d say that space funding has been grossly in excess of alternative energy funding. While the DoE won’t be the sole source for alternate energy funding, NASA isn’t the sole source for space-themed research either.

  17. odograph

    Just to back up, I’ll explain why I think this is important. I was educated in the sciences (chemistry) and worked in engieering (medical, environmental, and later pure software). One thing I’ve seen time and again is that rapid advances are made in “new” and “underfunded” fields. Once a field is populated by many research teams (especially when they are distributed around the globe) the easy work, the “low hanging fruit,” is rapidly explored. After that it becomes slow hard work, an incremental process.
    The real techno-optimists seem to pitch a line that sounds a little too much like “the streets are paved with gold! – all we have to do is a NASA-style R&D program and it would be free energy for everybody!”
    I’m sorry, but when we’ve been doing alternative energy research for 30 years … they aren’t quite as “alternative” as they used to be. Many of them are well understood and explored.
    The more we’ve already spent, the more places we’ve already looked, the harder it is going to be.
    It’s sad, but it’s not going to be an easy cornucopia of new technology.

  18. Fred Hapgood

    > Fred: That’s because the aero/astro engineers > are on the receiving end of all those
    > subsidies. It’s like asking a welfare
    > recipient if they think welfare is a bad idea.
    T.R. — You’ve lost sight of your point here. The argument of the aero/astro engineers is
    that manned space travel can get along just fine without subsidies. In your own terms, it’s like welfare recipients saying that they don’t need welfare and that it has done more harm that good. I know lots of these guys and I don’t know one who would disagree with this. And we haven’t even raised the topic of the space elevator.

  19. JD

    T.R., there are many people who believe that the station is waste of money. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one.
    Regarding privatizing, I referred to “government funding where needed”. The government subsidies I am thinking about would not be to pay the entire cost. I see a need for government funding for basically two purposes. First, private enterprises are not always willing to allocate corporate assets to high risk ventures when the payback is far in the future, if ever. Here federal grants provided for specific proposals would stimulate long-term basic research done by universities or private research organizations, something like the grants process now used by the Institutes of Health for instance. Can you see corporations launching a probe to Pluto just to take pictures? I don’t think so. Second, the government has a stake in the use of space for national defense and therefore has a legitmate reason to fund some research/development projects. I certainly do not want the U.S. congress to be providing the majority of the funding for space. I want to see congress remove the red tape and mostly get out of the way.
    Redundancy is good. But it is difficult, maybe impossible, to eliminate all of what I think NASA calls single-point failure modes. In other words, stuff that can break and cause loss of mission. An example of the value of a human is the “repair” that was performed on the shuttle a month ago. An astronaut was positioned under the belly of the orbiter to remove a bit of tile filler that had debonded. That kind of contingency isn’t covered in the design of highly redundant systems, is it? What if the orbiter was instead a robotic sample return spacecraft. What if a problem was detected with the capsule’s heat shield that would likely cause the craft to burn up in the atmosphere? What would we do? Probably deorbit the craft and pray.
    The robotic probes we have been sending out into the solar system are doing exceptional work. I wouldn’t send a human just to take pictures and make initial measurements. But, I still assert the superior ability of humans in exploration. When you think of going beyond just very basic research, I doubt that we will get too far if we continue with just robotics. The cost of sending humans into space is paid back by the higher returns that will be possible due to their presence. Mining asteroids and other planets, putting hotels in orbit and on the moon, etc, are the kind of money making ventures that corporations are likely to be interested in funding. I don’t see robotic craft, even with highly advanced automation software and highly redundant systems, being used to research and develop those things.

  20. T.R. Elliott

    Fred: Agreed. As they say, I was off in the weeds. Need to get my logic back in order.
    But…I cannot see an arguable business plan for manned space flight. All I can see are a bunch of billionaires who are willing to pay money to get a ride in space. But these guys are not funding the development effort. They’re just paying some marginal costs plus a little profit that is piggy-backed on all the R&D that went into the space program (I’m thinking in particular of space rides the Russians have been offering).
    JD: I don’t see how the space station can be considered anything but a failure. Nothing has been demonstrated in my mind. I’m sure someone can pull out a few meaningless experimental results. I think it is a dead end. And will soon be abandoned. And I don’t think the govt should subsidize manned space flight at this time. When I did work for the NAVY, they broke R&D up into several phases and allocated money accordingly. It was a pyramid. The least money was allocated to purely theoretical research, e.g. mathematicians doing cryptography as an example. Next, larger amounts of money to modelers, basic R&D, etc. Then a chunk of more money for prototypes (throw away). And then big bucks for actual development efforts. Manned space flight, in my mind, might be worth of levels 1 and 2. Research. But I don’t think a penny of Govt money, at this time, should go to building anything that puts people into space except for the most focused of purposes, e.g. repairing satellites. Perhaps an argument can be made for manned space vehicles to carry large payloads to and fro, but even then, the additional costs may instead argue for using standard launch vehicles and, if something fails, and it can’t be repaired in space, dump it and replace it.

  21. Jim Glass

    “Should we worry about the vulnerability of a space elevator to sabotage?”
    I’d imagine it would be less vulnerable than the Shuttle, where someone only has to crack an extremely fragile tile or slightly mis-install and O-ring or do one of 1,000 other such things to have what will look to all the world like an accident.
    But as a space elevator is at this point entirely speculative, who knows?
    [BTW, we must follow the same chain of links. As a former chess player I really enjoy that Nemeth anti-computer gambit: 1.e4 c5 2.Na3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Bc4 Nf6 5.h3 Nxe4 6.Bxf7+ Kxf7 7.Qh5+ Ke6 8.Qg4+ Kd5.]

  22. Eric H

    Why stop with getting out of manned space flight? Why not get out of manned fighters and bombers, as well? Aircraft carriers are some of the biggest expenses the Navy has, too. Ground all of the manned fighters and bombers, anchor the carriers, pull the AF back into the Army, and spend 25% of the money saved on UAVs. There is simply no reason except legacy thinking that keeps manned fighters and bombers in the air. With the new UAVs available, ground troops can operate their own air support. Something like 8 gallons of fuel is used for every gallon delivered to jet fighters, so this could be a potentially huge savings over the next 10 years. Plus, you wouldn’t have to have AF bases run separate from Army bases, or NAVAIR, or training, or ….

  23. Anonymous

    If anyone thinks that humans are helpful for exploration I suggest they compare the data collected by the Soviet Union’s uncrewed lunar exploration program compared to the United States’ crewed program. The Soviet missions, including sample return, provided about the same, or argueably better data than the American missions.
    And if you think that robots are slow and tedious, try watching footage of astronauts attempting to accomplish anything in an EVA. Now that is slow and tedious. Compare that to a top of the line Japanese industrial robot. Dollar for dollar, robots beat humans hands down (metal claws down?) in space.

  24. Brak

    As for the space elevator being in danger of sabotage, to take it out all you’d have to do is fly a plane into the cable. But I suppose you could do the same thing with a fueled space shuttle sitting on the pad. Indeed, as the cable would have to be in a tropical region, a flock of pelicans colliding with it in a freakishly high wind would be dangerous.
    But if a space elevator is built I doubt the first one will be able to carry people, unless politics interfere. As it would take weeks to get into orbit the cable wouldn’t be strong enough to carry a human and enough life support and radiation sheilding to get through the van allen belts, etc. The good news is that such a cable would be quite light weight and even if the whole thing fell to earth it wouldn’t be a disaster, although I suppose it could whip around in the wind and cut your head off.

  25. Fred Hapgood

    > But, I still assert the superior ability of
    > humans in exploration.
    This seems to me to confuse mind and body. Any robot that would be sent to, say, Mars, would be built, managed, and controlled, by humans and there is no meaningful sense in which it could be said that those humans were not doing the exploration. What matters is where the mind is, where the imagination is, not where the liver and stomach are. Any human steering a robot across the plains of Mars is living and expressing the values important to you, whether he is sitting on Earth, in orbit, or somewhere on the Red planet itself.

  26. The Glittering Eye

    To infinity and beyond!

    There’s an interesting discussion on the future of space exploration and research and manned space travel in particular going on in the comments section of this post at Econbrowser. Go over and putin your two cents.

  27. Caerdroia

    Back to the Future

    Transterrestrial Musings has a link to pictures — big ones — of NASA’s return to the Moon spacecraft. Wait a moment: where have I seen these before? It looks (not just from the pictures, but from what details have emerged of the plan) like …

  28. grandstand

    Agree with your comments about manned space exploration and the comments about cutting back on aircraft carriers- they are tremendously expensive. We don’t have enough money and must prioritize. We should be spending more on health and education and spending it wisely. The President seems to be better at throwing money than using it wisely and Congress goes right along because they think that the pork projects will keep them in office. Instead we have laws proposed to rescue people and their pets from the coastal wetlands without compelling them to buy comprehensive insurance as a precondition for getting a mortgage.

  29. Michael Mealling

    While you won’t get any argument from me on cutting NASA’s budget so long as the Innovative Programs Office gets its prize budget, I have to disagree with all of the robot guys here. The reason to go is that large numbers of us want to be there. We don’t want to be here anymore. Richard Branson has around 400 people who have paid $200,000 in full to simply fly suborbitally. Another 5000 have put down deposits for the $100,000 price drop that happens a year later.
    The point of manned space travel isn’t to “do science” better or worse. Its to move mankind into space permanently. Its fine to disagree with that. I personally don’t care if you actually _want_ to be stuck at the bottom of a gravity well your entire existence. But there are large numbers of us who aren’t satisfied with that.
    That doesn’t mean we want tax dollars to do it, though. NASA is not the end all be all of U.S. space travel. Come out to Las Cruces, New Mexico on October 9th for the Xprize Cup Expo and see how the other half does things.

  30. Dan

    Sorry to be commenting so late, I’ve been busy moving.
    1. Robots versus humans.
    Robots are better at simple repetitive tasks, or at dangerous tasks. Space travel definitely isn’t the first. The only advantage to the second is that it means when a mission goes bad there won’t be Congressional hearings.
    Imagine you were searching for dinosaur fossils in the Rocky Mountains, not knowing exactly what dinosaur fossils are. But instead of just going there, you had to parachute in autonomous half-ton robots. Now, given that you would need to drill in thousands of spots, slowly brush out pieces, collect them, and figure out how or if they are related, how many missions would it take before you could put together a T. Rex? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions?
    Now compare this to sending in three guys at a time with a nuclear reactor that can extract oxygen and water from the atmosphere, equipped with a shovel and a brush.
    2. Space elevator terrorism
    There are two concerns here: environmental damage and economic damage.
    For environmental damage, the “elevator” is actually pretty light. It’s just a cable. It would be like having 100 tons of feathers fall on you over the course of a day — i.e., there’s lots of time to get out of the way.
    For economic damage, it’s minimal if it isn’t attacked at the very beginning. The very first thing to build with 1 space elevator is another space elevator: the most expensive part of the elevator is getting the cable up into orbit, which is trivial if you already have an elevator. After 3 or 4 are built, you put another 3 or 4 spares into orbit that can be deployed even if terrorists somehow takes out all the currently installed elevators.
    We still don’t have the capacity to string together the nanotubes into cables of sufficient length. When (if?) that technological hurdle is taken care of, whatever country (or group of investors!) builds the first elevator will control the skies.

  31. RayBender

    What I hear is “bla, bla, bla. Cut all spending on spaceflight. Maybe give a few crumbs back to the unmanned stuff to avoid looking like total idiots.”
    What this approach forgets is that manned spaceflight subsidizes unmanned in many ways. The boosters used to launch various NASA probes were developed using billions from various manned (and military) programs. The communication network used is largely paid for from manned funds. Many of the people involved work on a range of programs, manned an unmanned. Without the effective subsidies from the manned program, unmanned programs would be very much more expensive (and thus might not look quite so cost-effective).
    Realistically speaking, any viable space program will require both components. Killing manned spaceflight is killing both; everything else is window dressing.
    If you think the U.S. government should cut space science funding, then at least be honest about that.

  32. TCO

    I think we should let the market lead. Maybe a few X-style prizes. But get rid of the aeronautical engineer make-work that is NASA. It will suck for some smart people, but that’s life. Society as a whole will be better off with them pounding the pavement and pursuing real jobs in industry. Note that this will reduce some airplance research as well. Big deal. Sell the wind tunnels to universities and Boeing. who cares.
    Oh…and I got banned from The Big Picture for pointing out that all of his conspiracy theory stuff about inflation is belied by the interest rates on bonds. And that he was a pussy…

  33. Wade Hawley

    I’ve heard a lot about the money from the space program being put into “black holes” such as feeding the hungry. If the money saves even one life, though it would save millions, it’s worth it. If man needs something to explore then why not finish off earth? The ocean is a pretty interesting place to me. Why not put money into that, im sure it would be cheaper.

  34. Solar Power News

    One advantage of unmanned space transportation would be for the construction of solar energy farms in orbit around the earth. They could collect solar power on a constant basis, and beam the energy back down to earth. Imagine how many solar panels we could fit in orbit? Obviously it will be some time before such projects are realistic but there is no doubt we will find a good use for un-manned space travel at some point.

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