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The Road Without End

Posted by: Troubadour - Wed Apr 25, 2012 5:41 am
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The Road Without End 
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Post The Road Without End   Posted on: Wed Apr 25, 2012 5:41 am
The following is the first half of a completed treatise on the state of human spaceflight, the political and economic causes of its failure to advance, and the proposal of a new organization specifically to address them. The full work is posted on a blog I've started called Horizon for the purpose of exploring the formation of this new organization. Read the full text and comment there if you find the ideas expressed in the first half worth exploring, and are interested in participating or even just contributing ideas in passing.

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I submit that the following statements are self-evident:
Quote:
1. The fundamental purpose of all activity in space, both robotic and human, is to progressively enable the expansion of human civilization beyond Earth to all possible destinations, forever.

2. Public-sector manned space programs have failed and their capabilities are collapsing due to political refusal to acknowledge or prioritize their underlying mission.

3. The private sector has failed to independently develop manned space capabilities due to the degenerative myopia of the modern business environment.

4. The disintegration of manned space capabilities across the board is collaterally damaging political and social support for robotic exploration, since its justification becomes nebulous (no pun intended) without the promise of eventual human expansion behind it.

5. The failures noted above are undermining global morale, contributing to the decline of public faith in future scientific and technological progress while compromising the long-term integrity of achievements already made.

We find ourselves in this predicament because of the unique historical circumstances that gave birth to human spaceflight: A capability that, in all realism, probably would still not yet exist without militarized superpowers having swallowed the up-front costs. It's not a bad problem to have, all things considered - to be in danger of losing capabilities that the banal process of history suggests we were lucky to have developed in the first place. But it is ironically the way we got it that's making it so hard to keep.

A government is essentially a quasi-static structure that contains and redirects naturally-occurring energy - call it "creativity," "economics," "thermodynamics," or what have you - and while intelligent governance can cultivate this energy, governments cannot by themselves spontaneously produce or sustain it by fiat. This is important because what was happening in the Cold War is that an incredible amount of energy was being devoted to the creation of weapons that neither side could afford to use, toward a contingency that neither wanted to see occur, and such titanic energies simply had to go somewhere - they could not be contained, so they had to be redirected.

Some of the redirected energy had benefits on the ground - roads, railways, expanded air transport, telecommunications, power plants, industrial efficiencies, and other systems the public could use in peacetime as well as war. A lot of the remainder was wasted in proxy-war shenanigans, literally burning off the money and creative energy in bullets and napalm. But at the same time, both Washington and Moscow realized that there was no strategic downside to using ICBM technology for civilian exploration of space: It looked good in propaganda, put a peaceful and optimistic face on an otherwise terrifying capability, galvanized national pride, primed interest in scientific and technical careers that could just as easily benefit the military, and all of the technologies produced in the effort could be fed back into weaponry without the stigma of directly funding it on that basis.

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It was a unique situation: For the first time in history, powerful nation-states were pouring vast sums of wealth and talent into an effort with unbounded global benefit and little or no direct strategic benefit. And it wasn't out of any Golden Age of high-minded idealism, but just an incredibly rare confluence of political factors that had never occurred before and likely never will again: Machines of apocalypse mobilized in service to the greatest of all possible futures, and a leader who called the boldest play in human history being martyred before he had a chance to change his mind.

But returning to my original point, governments cannot sustain economic energies by fiat - they can only contain or redirect them. So once the energy of the Cold War had dissipated, the two superpowers faced similar fates (albeit to differing degrees) - stuck with sagging hulks of infrastructure there was no longer enough political motivation to maintain or revamp. People cared about space as much as they ever had, but there was no longer all that surplus military-industrial wealth to redirect into it, and the military budgets that did continue were no longer bursting at the seams with latent apocalyptic danger. The military had more than enough opportunities to waste its energy in pointless third-world mission creep.

The United States had chosen to pour itself into an Icarus-like sprint to touch the face of a celestial body, and as a result the collapse of its manned space program has been a lot more eventful than its Russian counterpart: The Moon landings were cancelled after a few successes, and then the Saturn rockets and Apollo spacecraft the US had spent entire national GDPs developing were simply discarded. Instead, the American public was sold a lie called the Space Shuttle - a system designed to look like a spaceplane, but which in fact barely functioned and proved to be little more than a high-maintenance Frankenstein's monster of a heavy-lift launcher arbitrarily mated to a crew cabin.

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To those who dedicated themselves to it, I'm sure the Shuttle must have been truly awesome - I would certainly have felt that way if I'd had a chance to be involved with it, and I don't want to imply that they weren't every bit as committed to the cause as today's NewSpacers. But in the grand sweep of humanity's efforts in space, STS was a bill of goods constructed to meet political rather than technological needs - a piece of showmanship to hide the reality of collapsing political support for the underlying objectives of human spaceflight.

Why this happened can only be understood in context: A massive industrial infrastructure no longer fed by imminent military imperatives, but still tied to lucrative contracts and the prestige of appearing committed to manned space. The engineers, scientists, astronauts, and most importantly, the public still believed the United States had a manned space program, when in fact what it had become was just another aerospace contractor revenue stream with a few astronauts tacked on for show. There was no longer any political intention of going anywhere or doing anything with the capability other than the bare minimum needed to keep pretending the money was buying something.

And the reason is simple: Why endanger a guaranteed source of multi-decade profit with risky missions that could fail and bring unwanted attention? As Apollo had proven, even successful missions can threaten a program by giving leaders a platform to declare victory and raid the budget for other priorities. In accordance with statement #2 above, government leaders have failed to acknowledge that spaceflight serves a deeper purpose than isolated tasks or the political benefits of funding them.

To those in power, NASA has no continuing mission in the Star Trek TNG sense of the term - just a series of unconnected stunts of ever-declining boldness, a brand-name associated with ideals that are occasionally useful in speeches, and a plausible excuse to dole out money to an unchanging cadre of contractors. So, once that is understood, the Space Shuttle makes perfect sense in hindsight: It would go where dozens had gone before, cross no new frontiers, and look advanced without necessitating actual improvements.

With the Space Shuttle, public supporters of spaceflight would be fed a routine space-flavored adventure in bite-sized morsels that wouldn't upset the political balance, and those who either didn't care or were hostile would be lulled to sleep by the fact that nothing was actually happening. Increasingly meaningless "achievements" were touted with increasing desperation, until NASA began boring even its champions to tears. To this day, many still fail to see the irony of proudly crediting a $170 billion, multi-decade program with replacing the lens on an orbiting telescope as one of its greatest accomplishments.

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Although there's probably an exhaustive account somewhere of the minor scientific discoveries and incremental technological improvements made possible by the Shuttle, history will remember that over nearly thirty years (an entire generation), it fixed a telescope, delivered cargo to low Earth orbit (LEO), and blew up an average of 1.5% of the times it flew. So it was a fitting emblem for what manned spaceflight has meant to the political sector since the end of Apollo, but even that charade eventually proved unsustainable. By the time of its retirement in 2011, no one familiar with it still harbored the illusion that STS was a step to anywhere more exotic than a Universal Studios ride circa 1985.

Today, the United States has no independent manned spaceflight capability, owns a fractional share in a six-person space station with no artificial gravity in an orbit completely useless for going beyond LEO, and has a launch "industry" dominated by a virtual monopoly whose prices are so high their only customer is the US government - and even that customer only uses them to launch satellites and the occasional scientific probe. And yet, remarkably, there appears to be no surplus funding left from the retirement of the exorbitantly expensive Shuttle: The reason is that the resources were never intended to serve manned spaceflight in the first place - it was the other way around, with details of the STS program designed to suit the needs of its contractors - and now the same money simply flows without a convenient mascot hiding the corrupt politics behind it.

Instead, the same unproductive budgets now fly under the banner of SLS or "Space Launch System" - an entirely notional launch architecture designed to meet the political needs of a handful of Senators rather than advance human spaceflight. Unfortunately, such a system never has to actually fly or do anything noteworthy to serve these political interests, so there is no incentive to deliver on time, within budget, and with the promised capabilities...or even at all. If a contractor fails to deliver on a program the leadership has no concern for, it will simply be cancelled after they've wet their beaks and they'll "win" a new contract for something else in short order. Does anyone remember VentureStar?

Historians of human spaceflight will undoubtedly roll their eyes at the newest game of bait-and-switch - promises that the crew component of SLS, the Orion capsule, will be built to fly missions beyond Earth orbit (BEO): A claim that aligns neither with the post-Apollo historical record of such initiatives, nor present budget priorities, nor the political motives of the SLS program. The leaders behind SLS have no reason to enable NASA to deliver BEO capability, and nothing to lose by just once again looting the Treasury with nothing to show for it.

At most, and at enormous cost after long delays, SLS would replace the Shuttle with a small crew and cargo delivery system for the space station while more ambitious promises are ignored, found to be uneconomical, or strung out into the indefinite future before finally being abandoned. This was practically the same process that played out for the Shuttle itself, transforming it from the rapidly reusable spaceplane it was on paper into a Rube Goldberg contraption for reaching LEO at maximum cost and complexity. And that is what will happen again and again so long as the same institutional factors continue to determine the shape of human spaceflight. Such is the nature of the failure described above in statement #2.

The successors of the Soviet space program, meanwhile, have taken a much less storied path into entropy: Unlike the United States, the USSR did not throw itself into a lunge for glory and then spend decades trying to hide the collapse of political support for its efforts - it ground onward in the obscure toils of heavy lift and launcher reliability, and somehow achieved long-term success at both while every other area of its economy disintegrated. But both its physical systems and its skilled workforce are aging with little or no investment in replacing them, meaning that relatively soon the Soyuz will cease to be a reliable and sustainable system.

At that point, if nothing changes for the better, the cost of reaching LEO via any means will continue to increase until it becomes impractical altogether: A trend already observed in both US and Russian launchers, and in both cases due to state-sponsored monopolism. Money accumulated by the monopoly permeates the political system that supports it, adding corruption and governmental hostility to the barriers a challenger would have to face if it wanted to innovate. Meanwhile, the inefficiencies in the core monopoly propagate outward to its suppliers until a challenger would have to practically reinvent the entire industry to reduce costs - something that borders on impossible without some minimal level of political support.

Thus we arrive at statement #3 - the abject failure of the publicly-traded aerospace corporation to reduce or even fail to continually increase the costs of spaceflight. In the 1960s it was believed, with ample justification, that aerospace contractors and airlines would be investing their own resources in pursuing commercial human spaceflight: They were, after all, an enormously wealthy high-tech industry already drawing on trillions of dollars in aggregate public investments over decades. And indeed, they did commission several, very impressive pieces of space art to show off at conventions - but there was no consistent, robust executive support behind actually pursuing these concepts, so they evaporated as soon as Space Age zeitgeist stopped having PR value.

These companies had built their product lines with public subsidies based on public research, and by and large sold them to public agencies, so the net real economic activity of the industry was a lot smaller than it appeared - in fact, in some areas, no real activity whatsoever was occurring. It was just money being shuffled between different loci of the same political-industrial complex with no effective market mechanism being involved. But it worked during the Cold War, because there was a political imperative for contractors to innovate, and those innovations could trickle down into civilian technology. However, once that stopped being the case, the money became a purpose unto itself and the technology it purchased became a nuisance or a hollow MacGuffin rather than the actual point of the exercise.

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Once they were no longer serving an external purpose and answered only to faceless shareholders rather than entrepreneurial leaders, these companies became standard models of what I call black box capitalism - the idea that a business should be treated as a nondescript abstraction into you which you place investments and extract profits without knowing or caring what happens in between. In fact, publicly-traded corporations have a fiduciary responsibility to approach their business like this, so when they found it more profitable in the short-term not to reduce costs or innovate, and more immediately lucrative not to invest their own capital in advancing the state of the industry, this was what happened.

Even when the industry was consolidating and firms might have survived by taking greater risks, their practices were so optimized for avoiding risk that they chose to be swallowed by competitors rather than seek to regain market share through innovation. In fact, conditions became so anti-competitive that the firms in the industry stopped behaving like productive enterprises altogether: Cost and capability ceased to be driving concerns, with the only remaining factor of success being a company's relative lobbying strength.

So now the dominant players in what remains of the US aerospace industry are a rocket launch monopoly too expensive for anyone to actually afford its services (United Launch Alliance / ULA), a manufacturer of subsonic passenger jets that haven't transcended their original design in over half a century (Boeing), and an ecosystem of hub-and-spoke monopsony suppliers of components and instruments no one else wants or can afford. And while I've already harped on the state of the launch industry, I find the state of aircraft even more instructive - an industry that by all rights should be flying passengers in the upper atmosphere at multiple Mach by now.

Unlike the space industry, aircraft are not being hampered by politics, but by the marketplace itself - particularly, the stock-driven focus on immediate profit at the expense of long-term performance. In the 1950s, Boeing created the 707 - a tubular fuselage subsonic jet aircraft that is remarkably still in service. In 1960, Boeing began production of the 727 - another tubular fuselage subsonic jet aircraft that is still in service. In 1964, the company began development of the 737 - which, as you may have guessed, was yet a third tubular fuselage subsonic jet aircraft still in service today. We can skip the 757, 767, 777, and 787 and just stipulate that the same basic details apply to all of them.

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Just imagine if the same had been true from 1903 to 1960: Dwight Eisenhower would have been receiving urgent briefings about the Soviet Union's radical new designs of fabric-winged, turboprop biplanes, and worrying that America had lost the High Ground of 5,000 feet. We can appreciate the robust quality of Boeing's legacy aircraft, but my question is where are the new aircraft? Why I am flying at the same speed as my grandfather, only with fewer comforts and seats that could double as torture devices?

Every single plane Boeing has built since the late 1950s has been a variation of the same basic capabilities, and the same is true of its only competitor of note, Airbus. The "new" 787 and A380 - with their baroque, incremental improvements on engine efficiency, materials, and other subtleties - are basically the same as every previous passenger aircraft since the dawn of the jet age: My grandfather's flying experience without all the respect and perks, and several hours of teeth-gnashing delays tacked on to the ETA.

Air travel has failed to evolve because the businesses with the resources to bring large commercial aircraft to the next level (all two of them - how very competitive) have no incentives to do so, and innovators with the passion and talent to succeed lack the extraordinary capital they would need to even try. Black box capitalism teaches the doctrine that every last cent of value has to be squeezed from a legacy property before moving on, and no intermediate step that could be profitable should be skipped even if you have the ability to leap far ahead of competitors. So without a radical change in the political or economic environment, the future comes to look very much like the past.

If there were magic buttons in the offices of the CEOs of every large aerospace company in the world - Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, Northrup Grumman, EADS Astrium, etc. - that could instantly produce a quantum leap in capabilities in air and/or space travel for free, not one of those buttons would ever be pushed. The reason is precisely because it would be a quantum leap - as in, the shift would leap over a large number of potentially profitable incremental changes and thereby sacrifice latent value in existing hardware. This is how an appointed leader in a black-box capitalist enterprise thinks, and indeed must think to stay in favor with boards of directors.

The result is that a publicly-traded corporation will exhaust every option to avoid innovation before choosing to pursue it, and even then will change as little as possible to increase return from every marginal advance. And that is the crux of statement #3. I could go on to talk about any number of other sectors that equally demonstrate the point - particularly power plants, automobiles, and trains - but I won't belabor what should by now be clear from example: Left to their own devices, capital-intensive businesses will avoid innovation like the plague. That is why the major players of the aerospace industry have made no independent effort to advance human spaceflight, ever, despite having both the capital and the expertise to succeed.

(Continue to the full text)...

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Post Re: The Road Without End   Posted on: Wed Apr 25, 2012 11:56 am
Sorry, but I disagree that the first 4 point you put at the top of the post are self evident, and would argue that some are in fact plain wrong.

1) The Fundamental purpose of all spaceflight is NOT to enable human civilisation expansion. GPS, Earth observation satellites contravene this first point and are certainly space borne activities.
2) Public sector manned spaceflight, at this stage, has not failed. We still do it. In fact, it's the ONLY manned spaceflight.
3) Private sector has not started manned spaceflight because up to this point there has been no demand. There is a demand NOW, which is being filled (or at least attempted to be filled) by at least one private sector company. (SpaceX)
4) I see no real reduction of robotic missions, except those reductions caused by lack of funding due to global financial crisis - and space exploration isn't the only area suffering because of that.


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Post Re: The Road Without End   Posted on: Thu Apr 26, 2012 12:14 pm
JamesHughes wrote:
1) The Fundamental purpose of all spaceflight is NOT to enable human civilisation expansion. GPS, Earth observation satellites contravene this first point and are certainly space borne activities.


I think you're missing the point of the word "fundamental." GPS and Earth observation satellites are applications of orbital capability in general, not the capability itself.

Think of it like this: The vast majority of applications for an automobile will end in the same place they start (home), but that doesn't change the fact that its fundamental purpose is to go somewhere and, in the broadest sense, open up larger areas to development. The same is true whether you're talking about automobiles, boats, trains, aircraft, or spacecraft.

JamesHughes wrote:
2) Public sector manned spaceflight, at this stage, has not failed. We still do it. In fact, it's the ONLY manned spaceflight.


It has failed in the context of Statement #1 - the number of people in space has failed to grow significantly, and the volume of space accessible to human beings has shrunk under post-Apollo paradigms. We could say instead that it is "failing" rather than "has failed," but I don't want to imply that the problem is merely programmatic - it's far deeper than that.

JamesHughes wrote:
3) Private sector has not started manned spaceflight because up to this point there has been no demand.


This claim is fallacious. Personal demand for the capability has existed since the moment it was proven possible - what there was no demand for was the price point established by cost-plus contracting and political corruption of technical programs. The fact that both the public and private sectors failed to reduce the cost of spaceflight within reach of the demand is simply a reiteration of Statements #2 and #3.

JamesHughes wrote:
There is a demand NOW, which is being filled (or at least attempted to be filled) by at least one private sector company. (SpaceX)


Yes, one private-sector company with a small fraction of the resources of a single large aerospace contractor and already a number of bitter enemies on Capitol Hill. Have you noticed that Congress is continually reducing the amount of money made available to commercial contracting the more effective it proves to be? Have you noticed that the military recently handed ULA a guaranteed twenty-year exclusive contract at costs far above what SpaceX is offering? SpaceX is a voice in the wilderness with a precarious toehold in an industry that remains utterly indifferent to reducing costs and enabling capabilities.

JamesHughes wrote:
4) I see no real reduction of robotic missions, except those reductions caused by lack of funding due to global financial crisis - and space exploration isn't the only area suffering because of that.


See it now:

All planetary probe missions attempted by all nations (inclusive years):

1958-1962: 34
1963-1967: 56
1968-1972: 33
1973-1977: 18
1978-1982: 7
1983-1987: 7
1988-1992: 6
1993-1997: 6
1998-2002: 9
2003-2007: 17
2008-2012: 10
Planned* 2013-2017: 6

*A number of missions have been recently defunded, so their Wikipedia pages are not up-to-date.

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Sources (for the data - the graph is my work):
http://science.nasa.gov/missions/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_So ... tem_probes
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lunar_probes

I should note that the graph is just a rough connection of singular data-points occurring ON the vertical lines, so it does not represent a smooth progression of time.

But more generally, do you see anything significant? Like, for instance, an explosion in robotic exploration attending Apollo followed by its catastrophic collapse when the program ended? Only a small resurgence in the 21st century followed immediately after by a return to historic (non-zero) lows?

Synthesizing this information was not a trivial effort - there are redundancies and omissions in the Wikipedia sources, and the NASA one is only for US missions and includes a lot of Earth-observation satellites - so please keep it in mind for future reference. But thank you for the opportunity to further articulate why it is I've reached the conclusions I cite in the full text of the treatise. So hopefully you can now see why I state as a self-evident fact that robotic exploration is harmed when manned spaceflight takes a hit - something equally well-justified by the post-Columbia second downturn as by the post-Apollo catastrophe.

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