Dear John Hickman: Math and History are Important.

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto

Nob Akimoto is a policy analyst and part-time dungeon master. When not talking endlessly about matters of public policy, he is a dungeon master on the NWN World of Avlis

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12 Responses

  1. Avatar James K says:

    Always nice to hear a sanity check Nob.

    Remember back in the 1980s and 90s, when Japan was going to end up running everything? Fun times.Report

  2. Avatar Just Me says:

    I’m confused as to what your point is. You say the article has a lot to dislike about it. What exactly do you dislike?

    My take on the article was that the United States near Earth space endeavors are coming to an end. It speaks about how the ISS may be scrapped at the same time the Chinese space station is completed. Is this a falsehood? We recently stopped putting our own astronauts in space via U.S. space vehicles at the same time that China is coming into it’s own with their space program. Is this wrong? I didn’t take from this article the big red menace is going to take over the world and outer space, beware the Chinese. I took it as a realistic outlook, that if the U.S. continues to slack on it’s manned near Earth space program that another country, China, will fill the void.

    The U.S. can not lead in space policy if it doesn’t have the capabilities the Chinese will have. But I didn’t take from the article you linked to that it was a warning….oh noes those Chinese are going to take over the world if they are super awesome in space and we aren’t. I took it to say that if the U.S. wanted to maintain it’s role in near Earth exploration and it’s role in determining the future of how near Earth matters are handled then it needs near Earth capabilities.

    Those who are there and those who can get there under their own power have more say than those who have been there but who can no longer get there under their own power.Report

  3. Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

    Aargh, this kind of talk is so frustrating (and not exactly flattering to our profession, eh, Nob?). So let me add my kudos about sanity checks to James K’s.

    Specifically, Berry says;

    lose not only this international competition but also the chance to lead the human endeavor in space,”

    And from the linked article (not Berry’s original Foreign Policy piece;

    Hickman said China’s recent piloted space mission, Shenzhou 10, “may determine the terms under which the spacefaring powers compete on the final frontier. By the way, he said that one of many ancient names for China is Tianchao — the Celestial Empire. Shenzhou 10 may be pointing the way toward its creation,” he said.

    “Saying that it takes two to tango is a poor excuse for losing because international space politics isn’t a tango. Instead, it is a conga line,”

    What is “lost” for the space race loser? Prestige, perhaps, but how much are we willing to pay for that prestige? Because the rest of the benefits will come to us. Developing new technology is cool and can be profitable, but nobody has ever hesitated to buy, steal, or freely adopt technology created by someone else…it’s a good bargain.

    And how could China create a “celestial empire”? An empire requires controlling territory and compelling obedience or tribute from those who populate that territory. What’s China going to do, annex the moon? And station a battalion there to ensure we don’t set foot on it without a visa?

    And I’m really stuck on his analogy to a conga line. What could that mean? It takes multiple participants to make a good conga line, and they all contribute to it and benefit (if you like conga-ing) from their participation. Does he think dances are fighting to get to the head of the conga line? I suppose it’s fun to be first (I have no first-hand experience, but I’ve been to a godawful number of daddy-daughter dances and watched the kids dancing), but nobody in the middle ever seems to be too disappointed.

    I’m not against space exploration, and I’m gung-ho on developing new technologies. But partnerships, collaboration, these are good and productive things that don’t entail “losing” for any of the participants vis a vis the other participants.* This is the kind of vague meaningless terms people throw up when they have irrational fears for which they can’t write a serious substantive argument. I suppose its worth pointing out that education doesn’t necessarily eliminate this tendency, although that is one of its alleged purposes.
    *Necessary caveat to forestall the pedants: “when done right.”Report

  4. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Manned space flight is mostly a Hoist the Flag exercise. A bunch of PhD cholos in a very expensive Low Rider, cruising at 370 km aloft. Every drop of water on orbit costs its weight in gold.

    Nobody’s ever mopped out the ISS. It stinks in there. No way to clean the damn thing effectively. Years of astronaut BO does stack up. There’s a design problem for yez, nobody thought about how to clean this 150 billion dollar home among the stars.

    Yeah, let’s do Science on the ISS. Let’s grow li’l crystals and see if tadpoles will grow up to be big froggies. Fifth grade dumbassery on a colossal scale. Here’s a little engineering problem for yez, NASA, how many millisieverts of radiation are safe for a human being? Hint: call up Department of Energy, get few dozen damn radiation badges and send them up with your astronauts while they’re out there in your custom-built X-ray barbeque grill contraption.

    Let the Chinese have their little Hoist the Flag exercise. Good for ’em. Let ’em vent their nationalistic impulses into space. Sure beats any of the alternatives.Report

  5. Avatar greginak says:

    We have a burgeoning private space industry that shows great promise. NASA still does great things although they are focused mostly on science. Our private space industry, which exists as a function of the public expenditure of money on NASA, will take the lead in for profit endeavors. While i’d love to see us treble the money we spend on NASA and space research we are doing fine compared to other countries. Although i suspect it will be only 20-30 years before we have arguments about “what did the gov ever do to put us into space? It was private industry that did it.”Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      Private industry did put us into space, not NASA. Who do you think built those space vehicles? I would argue NASA has been an impediment to progress. There’s only one yardstick for progress in space, well two: the dollar cost of putting a kilo on Low Earth Orbit and putting a kilo onto geosynchronous orbit. NASA’s Space Shuttle was never once cost competitive.

      There’s an old US Army proverb which says the camel is really a horse designed to MILSPEC. NASA was created with one purpose, to get to the Moon before the USSR. What the hell went wrong after Apollo?

      NASA manned space flight is a waste of money. JPL is not a waste of money. Time to snatch NASA’s mandate for manned space flight away from it and give it to the private sector, people like Elon Musk, who can actually manage a project. Prune back NASA to its essentials. And install some actual civilian oversight for those poor NASA administrators, someone with a vision for NASA. I nominate Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He ought to be given the keys to the place, a big old stick and the mandate to give NASA both a hug and a beating and get that agency back on track. Because it’s not on track now.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:

        To add on to Blaise’s point, manned space flight was a political decision, rather than a technological or efficiency decision. Some folks thought–perhaps rightly, at that time–that public support for space exploration required putting a human face on it. And publicly it at least seemed like a more significant accomplishment in terms of national achievement–Sputnik was a good trick, and poor Laika was a nice step forward (except for that dying quickly part), but we actually put a guy on the moon, had him walk around, stuck our goddam flag in that soil so it’s ours, bitches!, and brought him back home.

        Politics has its uses, but there are cases where it’s still better to let the profit motive take over and political symbolism be damned. I don’t think Hickman gets that.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Umm yeah, there were plenty of private companies who worked directly with NASA. Of course. All that money for the private industries came from the gov. come on BP you know that. The gov took us to space. Private industries played a huge part of that. Sort of like have a strong capitalist market and a gov to do things the markets can’t. Could or would private industries have had the money to put people into space, could that make that long term investment or tolerate the risk. Going into space, regardless of whether manned space flight is a good idea, was only possible and done when led by the gov.Report

      • Avatar greginak says:

        Very true J. But also in the 60’s it was far from clear what the future in space would hold. Its much easier to say from 2013 that we don’t need men in space then it was back then. We didn’t know what we would be able to do with robots and unmanned missions or the time line for industrial uses of space.

        B-Why the hate on camels. They are well engineered for their environment.Report

      • Avatar J@m3z Aitch says:


        Well, I do know there were scientists who opposed manned space flights in the ’60s. But I’m not going to pretend to be a competent historian of the space race, so point taken.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Part of the problem is that the US and Soviet governments (along with the Chinese) have a huge security interest in keeping space access very, very expensive and very, very limited. Ideally the US would like to be the only country with space access, but that failed from the start with Sputnik. So short of that, the fewer players there are, the easier the world order is to maintain. I’d liken it to a non-violent (up till now) version of the battleship race, where the interest was in limiting the number of players and the size of the fleets to reduce competition and make sure a bunch of smaller powers couldn’t team up on a bigger power.

        The main reason that government got man into space was that getting into space required the use of reworked intercontinental ballistic missiles design to deliver nuclear warheads, and John Q Public just didn’t have those kinds of things sitting around. Such weapons were built in an environment where money was no object and performance was everything, and that kind of aerospace industry structure carried over into NASA, which was just us painting a happy civilian face on a military endeavor.

        To keep everyone in Congress on board, just about every important district was given a piece of the action, so production is distributed according to voting and lobbying power, not economic efficiency. As has been said, what Apollo proved was that the American centralized government socialist bureaucratic production system was better than the Soviet centralized government socialist bureaucratic productions system.

        That’s one thing the new start ups are changing, using more in-house design and production, less aerospace subcontracting, and focusing on dollars per pound delivered instead of maximizing the number of aerospace jobs regardless of whether the rocket ever even flies.

        The SLS is a case in point. For political reasons both SLS and the prior Constellation program’s Ares V used SRB’s, (upgraded from four segments to five) to meet the payload requirements and keep Utah (ATK) on board. NASA, focused on performance rather than cost, had long abandoned LOX/RP-1 (RP-1 is basically kerosene) and switched over to liquid hydrogen, so the only main engine they had in the stable was Rocketdyne’s RS-25 (aka the SSME), the RS-68 (used on the Delta IV), and the J-2 and RL-10, (which are upper stage engines), all fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LH2/LOX).

        The earlier Constellation was going to use a 10 meter main tank diameter (about 33 feet, the same as the Saturn IC stage) because the rocket’s required total impulse is large and LH2/LOX isn’t very dense, only a third as dense as RP-1/LOX, and slightly less than half RP-1/LOX in terms of impulse per volume. This means a LH2/LOX tank needs to be a bit more than twice the volume of a cheaper RP-1/LOX rocket. To get a big impulse in the first stage, the first stage has to have a lot of volume, and making it fat is a good way to do that.

        But the Constellation was canceled early in the Obama Administration, and instead they and the Senate mandated that NASA re-use as much existing Space Shuttle equipment and infrastructure as possible (to protect jobs). So NASA went back to the Space Shuttle’s 8.4 meter diameter external tank, which didn’t require new tooling.

        That means that for the same volume, the SLS tank has to be 42 percent taller than the Ares V tank. Meanwhile their overly large Orion multipurpose crew vehicle (16 feet in diameter), derided by some as an Apollo on steroids, was designed with a huge tractor motor escape system, the tall tower and rocket you see on the very top of Mercury and Apollo rockets. This all becomes important with the SLS Block II crew version. The narrow tank is necessarily very tall. The block II adds a second stage, also very tall, and on top sits the Orion with a very tall launch escape tower. A Saturn V stood 363 feet, and on its crawler the top of its tower only cleared the top of the VAB door by about six feet. The SLS Block II crew configuration is already 384 feet tall, without room for much of any payload under the capsule. That limits it largely to the role of a Saturn IB, delivering a capsule and crew into orbit or off to the moon, but without a lander. The cargo configuration can deliver a fairly big payload, but without a crew capsule because there’s just no where to put one without cutting off the roof of the VAB.

        All that might work out, launching crews and cargoes separately, except for the SLS’s cost. They’re throwing away the SRB’s (about $60 million) and four RS-25’s (SSME’s) at about $60 million each. Add in the tankage and other expenses, and the estimated $800 million to $1 billion for a non-reusable Orion capsule, and even NASA’s SLS program manager thinks the system will cost about $2 billion a flight, while critics and outside reviews put the cost much higher, perhaps as much as $14 billion a flight if all the associated costs are included.

        NASA’s human space flight exploration budget only has about $3 billion in it, so the plan is to launch a crewed version on year, and a cargo version the next. That makes mating a crew up to a cargo rather cumbersome. Some schedules only have a full-up SLS flight every four years.

        The Space Shuttle averaged 4.5 missions a year over its three-decade existence, and if you discount the two long downtimes after losses, the average would be 5.5 missions a year. Most missions carried a crew of 7 and could haul 22.7 tons of payload. So the Shuttle program put about 38 people and 120 tonnes of cargo into LEO every year. Under the every-other-year scenario for the SLS, it would only deliver an average of three people and 65 tonnes of cargo per year to LEO.

        If you take the four-year flight rate, and extrapolated backwards to the first test launch of a Saturn V in 1967, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt would still be waiting for their crew assignment on the Apollo 17 mission. set to launch in 2015 instead of 1972.

        If you look at cost per seat, Congress was raising concerns about the $70 to $90 million that the Russians were charging us for Soyuz missions to the ISS. The Orion can fly with a crew of up to six, and under the most optimistic scenario seats will be $333 million, and under the high-end estimates will be $2.3 billion – per seat. The program would have “cancel now!” written all over it, but it provides jobs distributed all across the country, so it won’t get canceled until Obama’s successor takes office.Report

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