Archive for the ‘space shuttle’ Category

Space exploration is one of the things that I am most passionate about in this life. I guess that my interest in the subject began when I was in Kindergarten. I remember being 5 or 6 years old and spending a lot of time looking through a copy of National Geographic that my parents had, which featured pictures of the Apollo Moon Landings. That  magazine also came with a tear-out record that I played over and over again on our old vinyl record-player. The recording was of Mission-Control talking with the Apollo 11 crew as they made the first lunar landing. So, from a VERY young age, I could quote Neil Armstrong’s famous words… ” That’s one small step for Man, One Giant Leap for Mankind”. My interest in manned space exploration only grew from there, as I spent the next few years of my life watching the original Star-Trek episodes on our old black and white TV. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty and the whole gang would fly around the galaxy at Warp Factor Nine, having interesting adventures, “encountering new life and new civilizations”, meeting hot alien chicks, and going”boldly where no man had gone before!” Spock would calculate the crew’s curent odds of survival to the 8th decimal point, Scotty would save the Enterprise from a warp-core breach every week ( usually with about ten seconds left to spare ), and Dr. McCoy would say “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a fill-in-the-blank-with-your-occupation-of-choice…” Those were the good ol’ days… when not only were we taking our first bold steps as a species out into the “final frontier” in the REAL world, but space travel was also being semi-plausibly portrayed on TV shows like Star Trek as a fairly routine, and perfectly normal activity in the not-so-distant future. NOTHING seemed impossible in those days. For a young boy with a typical young boy’s infatuation with exploring new things, NASA’s Apollo program was  absolutely as exciting as could possibly be. I mean,  what an incredible concept… to actually fly up to the MOON and walk around up there! Alan Shepard even played GOLF up there! The Apollo 15,16 and 17 astronauts even brought a car with them and drove it around up on the moon! I just assumed- as did many of my generation- that the Apollo program was only the very BEGINNING of a “grand age” of space exploration that I was going to have the PRIVILEGE of  living in. I felt VERY fortunate to be born into such times, and I gazed ahead in the days of my youth, to a future brimming with limitless possibilities- mars landings, moon bases, warp-drive capability etc…etc…

Alas, dreams die hard sometimes. By the time I got my hands on  that issue of National Geographic, the Apollo program had already been canceled by the government as a waste of money that the public was already growing bored with. On December 14th, 1972, Gene Cernan ( commander of Apollo 17 ) climbed up the ladder of his LEM ( Lunar Excursion Module)  and headed back to earth.  Humans haven’t left Earth-orbit since. It’s now been 38 years since Neil Armstrong made his “one small step for man”, and for a generation of dreamers who really, really believed that mankind’s destiny lay in the heavens, the intervening decades have been a cruel disappointment. You see, for many of us, Apollo wasn’t just about going to the moon and beating the Russians- it was an expression of hope for all of humanity. It was a foreshadowing of human POSSIBILITIES- a glimpse at what our species COULD be and do! And those  old Star Trek episodes weren’t ( entirely ) about William Shatner’s hammy acting and the silly paper-mache sets- it was all part of an optimistic VISION of  a human future wherein we set aside our differences as a species, and reach out to the heavens to achieve what we are capable-of,  instead of blowing ourselves to kingdom come with weapons of mass destruction. The dreams, the hopes, and the best qualities of a whole generation were captured by the pioneering spirit of those times. The imagination of a nation, and of a world, was sparked and captivated by WHAT COULD BE!… THAT was the true spirit of Apollo, and THAT is what lives on in me, and a lot of other people out there who watch with dismay as NASA has devolved from being the bold, pioneering vangaurd of an entire generation’s aspirations,  into a sad, rudderless, bloated, bureaucratic monstrosity with low aspirations and even lower achievements.

In the 35 years since the final Apollo mission, the United States, Russia, ESA ( European Space Agency) , JAXA, and other would-be space-faring nations  have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on manned space-flight, and have almost NOTHING to show for it except a lot of pointless space shuttle missions to mere Earth orbit, and the on-going, decade-long assembly of an orbiting flop-house that doesn’t seem to have much purpose. In-orbit construction on the ISS began in 1998, and is expected to be completed in 2010. The life-expectancy of many of the station’s original station components expires sometime in 2016, at which point NASA will have to either have to invest tens of billions of dollars in refurbishing it, or de-orbit it and allow 14 years of work to burn up in the atmosphere. THIS is the the opus-magnus of NASA for the entire post-Apollo era? THIS, is the final result of our nation’s four-decade, hundred-billion dollar investment in manned space exploration? Don’t get me wrong… I don’t want to denigrate ALL of NASA’s achievements in space over the last 35 years- there HAVE been some good things accomplished. GPS and communications satellites come to mind. Rovers  have sent back  amazing HDTV-quality video of the surface of Mars, and many  un-manned deep-space probes have been sent flying all over the solar system in the years since Apollo, which have yielded amazing discoveries, sent back terabytes of valuable data, and vastly increased our knowledge of our  solar-system. Also, The Hubble Space Telescope was ( and still is ) the crown jewel of all our efforts in the field of un-manned space exploration. The pictures we got back from HST are probably the most mind-boggling images ever seen by human eyes. But while unmanned exploration has some great achievements to point to, the manned-exploration side of things has been a miserable, pathetic failure, and a great disappointment to our country and to the world, for a long time now. NASA’s two primary undertakings of the last 30 years have been the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station. And neither one of these programs has even remotely come close to surpassing Apollo, in terms of historical significance or in terms of sparking public interest.

The bold pioneers- the “steely-eyed missile-men”- of the 60’s and 70’s were able to land men on the moon with archaic technology and a flight computer that had less computing power than your average modern wristwatch. NASA’s activities today focus on the Space Shuttle and the ISS. Near as I can tell, the Space Shuttle exists now for little other purpose than to give us a way to get to the ISS, and The ISS apparently exists for little other purpose than to give the shuttle someplace to go to. So we launch our insanely-overpriced shuttle missions up to Earth-orbit, putter around for a while in our insanely-overpriced, orbiting tin-can, and then fly home. What’s the point? I think it’s no wonder that so many people now think that Space Exploration is  just a colossal waste of time, and that the money could be better spent here on Earth. I disagree, as to that sweeping characterization, but I certainly can see where that attitude comes from, and I certainly don’t think that NASA has been good stewards of the national wealth it has been entrusted with. Certainly, there is nothing in what we are currently doing in the area of manned space exploration to capture the spirit and imagination of a new generation. Nothing bold. Nothing audacious. Nothing inspired. Nothing worthy of public interest and attention.  I think that a humorous article from one of my favorite on-line newspapers, ” The Onion”, accurately captures the essence of the frustration that so many people now have with NASA’s pointless and wasteful activities in space these days. For a good laugh please click here….



Sadly, the FUTURE that NASA, the bureaucrats, and the politicians have mapped-out for the next 30 years or so looks about as pointless and stupid as the LAST 30 years have been. The current plan du jour is to spend the next few years spending tens of billions of dollars finishing the ISS ( by which time it will be obsolete and in need of major refurbishment or abandonment ). THEN, we are to embark on a decade-long, zillion-dollar quest to RETURN TO THE MOON, and THEN to build insanely-expensive permanent bases there that will be regularly re-supplied and re-staffed with even MORE insanely-priced moon-shots. In other words, NASA’s grand vision is ( IF everything goes to plan) to put us, in the year 2018, right back where APOLLO 11 put us FIFTY YEARS  AGO. From there, the moon is supposed to act as a “stepping-stone” to Mars and ANOTHER multi-decade, multi-zillion dollar NASA extravaganza to get there.

Look, it’s time to face reality here- about NASA, and about the course that manned space exploration in general is currently on. We’ve lost our way. The original NASA was built on the shoulders of committed visionaries like Robert Goddard, Wernher Von Braun, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Gene Kranz. It was an organization that was basically formed to give these dreamers,these explorers, these brave pioneers, a MEANS by which to give shape to their aspirations. The current NASA is a government bureaucracy staffed with government workers who function, aspire, plan, and behave as all government bureaucracies do- inefficiently, slowly, wastefully, and in plodding, drudgerous, safe,  un-inspired fashion. It’s a different culture now, with different attitudes, and different motivations. The CURRENT bunch is simply not cut from the same cloth as the original NASA guys, and I honestly believe now- when I look at NASA’s track record of uninspired mediocrity and waste over the past few decades, and when I look at their truly pathetic and unrealistic plans for the next few decades- that they are fundamentally incapable on a basic INSTITUTIONAL level, of achieving and implementing the next steps that humanity needs to take in the area of Human Space Exploration. If the optimistic vision of a human destiny in space- the kind of vision held by people like Gene Roddenberry, Carl Sagan, Robert Zubrin, and Buzz Aldrin-  is ever going to realistically come to pass, we are going to have to find another way to get there I think. We are going to need a new plan, new leadership, new goals, a new mission, a new paradigm, and a new business model.  I believe we should honor NASA for it’s past achievements, but when you consider the insane amounts of money that they have basically thrown down pointless rat-holes over the past few decades and their plans to throw even MORE money down the same rat-holes in the future, it is becoming increasingly clear that the whole concept of NASA- as it’s currently organized- is becoming a deteriorating scenario of diminishing returns on our national investment.

We need a totally new paradigm for human space exploration if we are ever going to achieve what we are capable-of,  as a nation, and as a species. That’s what it comes down-to. My thoughts on how we can realistically get to that place we are trying to get-to, will comprise the majority of the rest of this essay. 

 A couple of weeks ago, I went to go see “In the Shadow of the Moon”- a limited-release documentary comprised of interviews with the original Apollo astronauts, and never-before-seen footage from the NASA archives. If anybody else out there is feeling as depressed as I am about the current state of NASA, and about the state of manned space exploration on general, do yourself a favor and go see this movie. ( Don’t worry about finding a seat. Public interest in the space program is at a low ebb, so it was me and about six other people watching this movie on a Saturday night, in a city with a population of  about 1 million. ) The documentary was absolutely inspirational. I left the theatre with renewed  hope, renewed pride, and a renewed prayer for the return of  the TRUE spirit of Apollo to our nation. This movie reminded me of why I became interested in manned space exploration in the first place, and reminded me of the POSSIBILITIES that once inspired my generation.  We dont need to settle for this pathetic state of affairs! We can do more, and we deserve better! At this point, I think that things have gone so far astray at NASA that we should just start over with a clean sheet of paper.

First of all, lets start with some basic facts….We don’t even have a realistic vision of what we are even trying to accomplish in space, much less a serious plan for getting us there! Let’s start with a VISION, shall we? It seems to me that the critical component of ANY long-term sustainable human presence in space is that the people who are PAYING for it have to see a REASON to support it. There has to be something in what NASA is doing to inspire us- to capture our interest- and to let us live out our dreams through their bold and audacious plans. “Hello, McFly!”, we’ve already BEEN to the moon! A hundred-billion dollar, multi-decade “vision” to return to the moon is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of. There is no possibility of anybody caring about this moronic waste of time, much less any chance of anybody being inspired by it! And after that, why are we building  “bases” there? Bases that are supposed to be continually staffed via endless, insanely-expensive missions like we currently use to restaff and resupply the ISS?… What is the purpose? Why would we do such a thing? NASA should be smacked in the head repeatedly with a dead waterlogged rat for adopting this monstrosity as it’s mission-plan for the next couple of decades. And WHY is the moon a necessary “stepping-stone” to Mars any more than the ISS was a necessary “stepping stone”? That simple question is the 800lb gorilla sitting on the living room couch isn’t it? USA Today said as much in an  editorial, that captures very well, I think,  the absurdity of NASA’s future mission plans…

USA Today Editorial:NASA, The Costly Frontier:


To quote briefly from the article, ” On a practical level, this project raises a number of obvious questions. Why go back to the moon? Why build what is partially rationalized  as a base camp for an eventual trip to Mars in the gravitational sink hole of a planetoid? Where’s the scientific reward that would justify such an expense? “. So at least I am not the only person asking impertinent questions  about NASA’s plans for the next few decades… Just a thought, but instead of going to the moon again, why don’t we at least consider trying to do something we HAVEN’T done before, that MIGHT  at least stand a chance of capturing the public’s interest for a change-ie. a manned mission to MARS. I’m willing to bet that when an astronaut climbs down a ladder, and says something brilliant as he ( or she ) puts their boot down onto the martian soil for the first time, that there will be a few people tuning in to see that! So… Step ONE of a much-needed complete re-vamp of NASA’s mission plans going forward would be to jettison this whole moon-base stupidity, and get on with something that has a realistic hope of rekindling public support and interest in the space program.

 Step TWO, is to have a realistic, straightforward plan of getting to the new goal. We cannot afford to waste hundreds of billions of dollars re-inventing the wheel, and we DON’T need a bunch of intermediate steps and exotic new technologies to get to Mars. The Apollo-era heavy-throw Saturn V booster had everything we needed to put the peices required to get to Mars into orbit. ( As an aside, I’ve seen one of these beasts in person. They’ve got one laying on it’s side in a hanger at Johnson Space Center in Houston. It’s open to public viewing, and I would rank it highly among the most amazing things I have ever seen in this life. Trust me, if you have a chance to go to Houston for any reason, make time to go see the Saturn V. ) It’s not that difficult… you throw up two or three components into orbit with a few Saturns, you do a quick orbital rendezvous ala’ Gemeni and Apollo, you light the damned rockets, and you head to Mars. We have NEVER needed the intermediate steps of moon bases, international space-stations, space-shuttles, orbital assembly of “Battlestar-Galactica”-type ships,  nuclear-thermal propulsion, and warp-drive capability to get to mars. All we need is some leadership! We could have been to Mars  20 years ago with Apollo era technology, and if we committed ourselves to it today, we could be there in 10 years or less. If we cast aside all of NASA’s useless, intermediate steps and pre-conditions,  and instead adopted something like Robert Zubrin’s “Mars Direct” approach ( see Links at the end of this essay ), we could get there NOW, not 50 years from now!

 Let me tell you something that I have learned in the corporate world from real-life experience- a commonly used strategy to avoid doing something hard that really does need to be done, is to commission a bunch of “studies” of the problem. That alone can take years. THEN, you make sure that your “studies”‘ have conclusions that recommend a bunch of pre-conditions and intermediate steps  that would have to be to be fulfilled prior to actually addressing the primary task.Then you make the process of fulfilling the study’s recommendations for intermediate steps, so time-consuming and onerous, that the hoped-to-be-avoided course of action can never actually come about- at least not during a manager’s time there, and THAT’S what really matters.  I have PERSONALLY witnessed this variety of corporate-management-kung-fu in action. I’ll give you a real-life example… At my own company, we own many buildings. We have a problem with leaking flashing, and a multitude of “gaps” in many of our building’s exterior surfaces ( some of them so wide you can stick your whole hand in there ). There are gaps between the siding, the stucco and the wood- which allows rain and snow to just run freely into the walls and to cause widespread mold and drywall damage. The straightforward solution would be to get a bunch of guys with caulking guns to come out and seal the gaps- which I once “boldly” suggested in a memo. But my company has managed to largely  ignore the problem and avoid spending the money, by insisting instead,  that I generate a spread-sheet first, which LISTS each and every crack AND correlates those cracks to SPECIFIC areas of interior water-damage. There are literally thousands of cracks, and many, many hundreds of instances of interior water damage. If I did nothing else but work on crack-detail spreadsheets for the next three years ( I have no time for it whatsoever ) , I MIGHT be able to satisfy the pre-conditions for taking actual steps to solve the problem. But they know that I don’t have the time, and so the can gets kicked on down the road for ANOTHER few years,  ( or at least until the million-dollar toxic-mold lawsuits start flying). NASA is doing EXACTLY the same thing. They don’t want to undertake anything bold, risky, dangerous, or uncertain. What government bureaucrat DOES want to be responsible for something with a significant potential for catastrophic failure? So instead, they commission a bunch of studies and reports which predictably conclude that before we do anything crazy ( like doing something we haven’t done before ), we should FIRST finish the ISS, repeat the entire Apollo program, build a bunch of moon bases, develop nuclear thermal propulsion etc. , etc… NASA has now set so many pre-conditions and intermediate steps that have to occur before we leave orbit and head for Mars, that it will take many decades, and trillions of dollars before that day ever arrives- if it ever does arrive . By THAT time, the current crop of NASA managers will be safely retired on their government pensions. And that’s all that really matters here. NASA is also well aware of the budgetary crisis our nation faces in next few decades. The chickens of all of our multi-generational, unfunded , ponzi-scheme entitlement programs are going to be coming home to roost when the baby-boomers retire soon. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Prescription Drug Benefit ( not to mention interest on the growing national debt, and the cost of rapidly-escalating military commitments around the world ) are going to basically bankrupt the next generation of Americans. There is a realistic limit to what NASA can expect funding-wise in the years to come, and they know that the money is going to run out LONG before all of their intermediate pre-conditions for a Mars Mission are met. They know that they will get a lot of totally-wasted funding in the meantime to keep everybody on the gravy-train, but at least under their plan, they will get that funding without ever having to realistically deliver anything resembling a mission to Mars. That’s the sad and honest truth folks. So that’s what I think of Nasa’s “vision” and of their so-called “plans” for the next several decades. I think it’s a complete crock of bullshit.

So what’s the alternative? Well, as I have already suggested, Step ONE would be to get a realistic vision, and Step Two would be to get a realistic road-map to get there. The best that I could hope for for NASA, would be that somebody sensible becomes president and simply kicks the 800lb gorilla off the living room couch and says- ” Look, this isn’t happening. You guys go back to the drawing-board, and come back with a ten-year-plan to get us to Mars that doesn’t involve moon bases. ” Furthermore,  rather than investing another fifty-billion bucks on the ISS before we de-orbit it into the atmosphere, why not save the money and time and de-orbit the damned thing now? Instead of pursuing this folly to it’s ultimate pointless and wasteful conclusion, why don’t we stop throwing good money after bad, and call it a day shall we? And while we’re at it, let’s save ANOTHER twenty-billion bucks by not waiting until 2010 to retire the shuttle fleet. If I were president, I’d hand the keys to the ISS to Russia today and say “good luck comrade”. They would probably turn a profit on the thing by selling tickets to space-tourists. They need the money, so I say God Bless em’. I’d approve one more shuttle mission to service Hubble, and then I would send the shuttles to the Smithsonian.

The shuttle was supposed to be a cheap, safe, reliable, re-usable system capable of  quick-turnaround times and easy, routine,weekly, launches to and from Earth orbit that would radically lower the cost per-pound of mass-to-orbit. It wasn’t ANY of those things. It was a lemon from the start, and a totally bad idea from the get-go. ( Anytime you spend 50 billion bucks on a peice of equipment and you have to use the phrase ” the tiles fell off”, you pretty much know youv’e got problems.) We’ve wasted the time and treasure of an entire generation puttering around in earth-orbit, and the sooner we put this sad era behind us, the better. I admit, I DO like the next-generation CEV ( Crew Exploration Vehicle ) AKA “Orion”, and the “Ares” heavy-throw Saturn-type booster that NASA is developing as a successor to the shuttle system, but I would change two things. I would immediately divert all  ISS and Shuttle funding to a crash -program to get these new systems operational pronto. I would also insist on developing  Orion and Ares within the architecture of a near-term, Mars-focused mission plan. No moon bases!

We also need to reform  NASA on an institutional level, and give that reformed agency a bigger budget- a budget commensurate with a country that has a GDP of 13 Trillion dollars. Truth be told, I think that the government’s investment in Space Exploration should be quadrupled. As a percentage of GDP, the money IS there, and we could easily come up with the funds, given the VAST size of the federal budget, with even MINUSCULE cuts in the rate of entitlement spending growth , and by curtailing earmarks and blatant pork-barrel waste ( bridges to nowhere and woodstock museums ).  HOWEVER, along with that funding increase, NASA DOES need to be re-focused, and re-organized. Also, we need to introduce some new paradigms into aspects of the system to better utilize the power of market-driven competition to drive progress, spur innovation, and to encourage the flow of private capital into the area of space exploration. Also, we need to invest in new launch technology in the same way that the government once invested in the railroads to open up the rest of the continent to commerce. I will detail some of my specific proposals in these areas below…

 If it were up to me, I would divide the new up-sized NASA budget 4 ways. One Quarter of the new quadrupled budget ( the equivalent of  the entire current budget ) would be focused solely on Orion, Ares, and on a ten-year plan for a manned mission to Mars.  Un-manned science missions would also get a full quarter of the new budget money for probes, orbiters, and un-manned landers- with a large part of that budget focusing on finding suitable landing sites on Mars with frozen sub-surface water ice ( which would open the way for long-term colonization ), and on Robert Zubrin’s in-situ fuel production lander idea. I would green-light a major robotic mission to Europa ( currently canceled ), because it’s oceans probably have the best chance of harboring life of any place in our solar system outside of Earth.  I would absolutely continue to fund ( and upgrade ) from this money,  NASA’s  fine array of space-born astronomical observatories- Chandra, Spitzer, and  Hubble, as well as the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope. I would also also make SIM and TPF ( Space Interferometer Mission and Terrestrial Planet Finder ) long-term priorities for the “Science Directorate” of NASA. The unmanned exploration sector within NASA has EARNED the right to be stewards of our hard-earned tax- dollars. Another quarter of Nasa’s new super-budget would go to the development of a totally new launch system, and I would administer that part of the budget in a totally new way.

The new “launch system” that I am referring to, is called “The Space Elevator”. It has the potential to change the fundamental paradigm of space exploration to such an extent that it may wind up being more historically significant to our species than even the Apollo program was. I really do believe that it deserves funding equivalent to the entire current NASA budget. The fact of the matter is that there is only so far we are going to go as a species with space-faring exploration and colonization with conventional chemical rockets. The cost of getting people and material into orbit on a per-pound basis by conventional means is a PERMANENT limiting factor to what is possible for mankind if another cheaper method is not found. People have needs here on earth, and governments have many responsibilities to their peoples. Health-care, the military, retirement, roads, schools etc…., etc… There is only so much money that will EVER be able to be allocated to the space program. The fact of the matter, is that the BULK  of what is currently spent on space, is being wasted on propelling minuscule amounts of mass into orbit atop millions of gallons of propellant in insanely-expensive chemical rockets. Chemical rockets are an economic dead-end for space-exploration in the long-term. They have enabled us to take our first steps out into the great unknown, but they won’t allow us to take human presence in space to the next level for reasons of cost.  Not only are chemical rockets cost-prohibitive for non-profit organizations like NASA, but they are even MORE prohibitive to space-based, for-profit business ventures like space-tourism. Since we must assume that the amount of money that governments can spend on space exploration will ALWAYS be limited as a percentage of budget, the ONLY possibility for a significant expansion of human presence in space is if the cost of launching mass-to-orbit is radically reduced. In this way, it can it become profitable for private industry to drive the next phase of  human expansion into space. To make an analogy to another time in our history, the great expansion of the railroads that connected the east coast to the west coast, and the government’s investment IN those railroads, were only made possible by the fact that economic opportunities awaited at the end of the line. What SUSTAINED that rail infrastructure  ( and later built the interstate highway system as well ) was the economic activity that UTILIZED the road and rail grid. The government has a vested interest now in developing a better mass-to-orbit system that will radically lower launch-costs and make it possible for profitable space tourism to grow and thrive. The impetus of capitalism,of market-driven competition,of private investment,and of consumer demand  can bring to bear a  VASTLY greater power and wealth upon the area of human space exploration than government spending will EVER be able to in the long-term. But there has to be something IN space that motivates people to want to go there, and there has to be a much cheaper and potentially profitable way for private companies to meet that consumer need. The primary reason for average people to ever want to go into space is to see the view. Plain and simple.There is no other compelling reason for most people to need, or want to go there, or for private industry to find a way to send them there. The primary economic engine, therefore,  that will expand human presence in space will be tourism, and the lynch-pin that space tourism hangs upon is the development of a much cheaper mass-to-orbit system. That system is the Space Elevator, and quite frankly, I think that the development of that system should probably be NASA’s PRIMARY focus. It should be AT LEAST equal in terms of funding and in terms of priority, with every other thing that NASA does.

 For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Space Elevator concept, I will give a brief description of what it entails, and a few links to more information. Basically, the idea of the space elevator can be likened to tying a ten pound weight to the end of a rope and swinging it in a circle. The centrifugal force of  a weight attached to a spinning body ( in this case the earth itself ), holds the tether upright and rigidly in position between the weight and the spinning body. The critical component that was lacking in such a scheme, until fairly recently , was a material strong enough to bear the weight and stress loads required to permanently connect an orbiting object with the surface of the Earth. That structural material exists now. The strength-to -weight ratio of carbon nanotubes is sufficient to make a permanent space elevator an actual reality. From the standpoint of an observer on Earth, the space elevator would appear to be a thin, stationary, black ribbon stretching all the way from the ground to outer space. Of course, it would only appear to be stationary, as in reality, the earth would be spinning at many miles per second, as would be the elevator and the structure tied to it’s end.It’s just that it would seem stationary because we are also spinning at the same speed relative to it. A mechanical climber simply rides up and down the “elevator”, with none of the ridiculous costs and infrastructure associated with chemical rockets. Mass-to-orbit costs stand to be reduced a hundred-fold, and the first job of the first space elevator will be to lift up spools of carbon nanotube fibers containing the initial filaments of a hundred MORE space elevators. Many of these elevators will be financed by new businesses, and by a massive influx of venture capital that will be attracted to the new frontier by the now- potentially profitable space tourism industry. Indeed, ALL of the current industries that utilize chemical rockets for mass-to-orbit would find their costs greatly reduced, and capital /investment would flow to these sectors too. Cheaper mass-to-orbit also opens up possibilities for entirely new industries and technologies such as beamed power generation. The space elevator is the key that unlocks the gateway to the final frontier, and also to actual COLONIZATION of Mars, as opposed to just a few “plant-the-flag-and-look-around”  missions.

Discover Magazine Article: “Going Up”


Wikipedia: The Space Elevator:


Also, I would spend Nasa’s  entire Space Elevator budget under a new paradigm. It wouldn’t be an in-house operation at all. It would be along the lines of what DARPA ( Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration ) did with their open-to-the-public Autonomous Vehicle competition- only on a much grander scale. I would dole out the money as grants to approximately five companies that wanted to have a go at it, and have a 50 billion dollar “X-Prize” for the company that gets the first space elevator up and running. Let’s face it,  government bureaucracy is the method of absolute last resort if you want innovation, efficiency, speed, and excellence. On the other hand, try dangling that kind of money  in front of some lean, mean, greedy, hungry, profit-driven corporations, and you’ll have the elevator up before you can say Jack-and-the-Beanstalk.


My proposal for the final quarter of Nasa’s new budget would be to spend it on addressing another fundamental problem that is holding back human space exploration . I am talking about trying to do something unheard-of, and almost unimaginable, to recapture the daring spirit of Apollo again. We need to fire the imagination of a NEW generation! We need to capture the hopes, and the dreams of all the hard-working people out there whose tax dollars makes all of this stuff POSSIBLE! We need a bold, visionary goal- an audacious undertaking that is WORTHY of the attention, of the interest, and of the un-flagging support of the PEOPLE. We need a goal whose noble and lofty vision brings a tear to people’s eyes, and makes school-children lay awake at night in their beds thinking ” is such a thing REALLY possible?!”It should be like it USED to be, back in the early days of the Apollo program.  I have an idea of what that goal could be. I think I know what undertaking would be truly worthy of NASA, and worthy of the yearning for brave  EXPLORATION that lies at the core of what is BEST in the human spirit…

 I propose that an American president should lay before the American people the idea of building a vast space-born optical interferometer. The purpose of which would be to answer two fundamental questions-

 1.) Are we alone in the universe? …Does Life exist out there, and if so, is it simple or complex? Rare or prevalent?

2.) Is there another Earth? Are there many?… And are any of them close enough for us to consider what would be the greatest journey of all- going there. ( Via either a multi-generational colony-ship, or via a probe with genetic seed-material that could start a new branch of the tree of life in the universe.)

 For those of you unfamiliar with the possibilities and potential capabilities of space-interferometers, I will briefly outline the idea, and provide a couple of links to more information. Basically, the idea of putting telescopes in space is based on the fact that they are above the atmosphere- which obstructs and distorts our view of distant heavenly bodies from Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope ( launched in 1997 ) is one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of mankind, and just so you don’t have to take my word for it, I’ll include a link to some of the images that Hubble has given us, and let you see for yourself. Honestly,  any words of mine would be totally unable to express the grandeur and majesty of what is out there anyways. Suffice it to say, that our view of the universe will never be the same. The Hubble deep field photographs boggle the mind. They are filled with millions and billions of tiny red, green , blue and pink smudges that fill up the HST’s entire view of the sky. Those tiny multi-colored pinwheels are galaxies. Each of them contains hundreds of billions of stars just like our own , and around those stars are circling billions – if not trillions- of planets. Some are inevitably going to be similar to own tiny blue marble that we call home. Statistically speaking, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that SOMEWHERE out there is a planet that is, for all intents and purposes, practically identical to Earth.  Now consider for a moment that Hubble only has a lense two meters-wide. The principle of interferometers ( in space in this case ) is that it is possible to create a “vitual lense” equivalent to the diameter of a CONSTELLATION of movable telescopes placed at great distances from one another. Someday, it will be possible to create a telescope in space with the equivalent of a lense that is TENS OF THOUSANDS OF KILOMETERS wide. Think what we have seen with Hubble’s tiny lense, and then imagine what we would see with an interferometer of that size! We will look down on distant worlds- maybe even in other galaxies- with the same resolution that CIA spy-satelites currently use to read a car’s licence plate from space. We won’t need SETI to be randomly looking for patterns in interstellar radio signals anymore. We will simply look down on distant worlds in VISIBLE light wavelengths , and SEE if there are any designed structures indicative of complex life. We will also use gas spectroscopy to determine the exact composition of those planet’s atmospheres, and see whether or not there are un-natural combinations of gases which are incapable of forming apart from the presence of life and biological processes going forward. If life is out there, we will know. If we are alone, we will know that too. Darwinists claim that abiogenesis, the origin and evolution of species, the spontaneous creation of self-replicating information processors like DNA , the code that is written on that information processor, and the irreducible biological complexity that code translates into, are all NATURAL processes that merely  require time and the right environmental conditions to occur. Intelligent Design advocates dispute that unproven claim and point to the problems of irreducible complexity, and of universal probability bounds in a finite universe, as proof that Design had a hand in creating complex, specified genetic information and interwoven, interdependent biological structures and processes that would never have come about by the “small, ,sucessive steps” required of Random Mutation and Natural Selection. The fact of the matter though, is that advocates for BOTH Answers to the “Big Question” can only point to a data-set of one. We currently only know of ONE place in the entire universe where life exists, and nobody has ever specifically explained, demonstrated, or duplicated the process by which that life came to be. If Darwinism is correct, then these natural processes must go forth on a trillion other worlds, and CERTAINLY the universe must be teeming with all manner of life- both simple and complex. Space interferometry will tell us if that is so or not. Objectively speaking, so far, SETI has laid a big fat goose egg, and the silence out there is deafening. Observational data so far has NOT supported that notion of complex life existing outside of this planet. Certainly SETI isn’t tuning into the bar-scene from Star Wars like it probably should be if Darwinism and purely naturalistic forces are solely capable of explaining life independent of design. But we’ll never really know the answer to the question of Life until we get out there and look for it. Personally, I think that the Fermi Paradox deserves to be resolved, and I want very much for us to actually get up there and SEE the truth.  The space interferometer will show us that truth, and I believe I can HANDLE the truth- whatever it turns out to be. The Space Interferometer is a worthy goal – for our species and for our nation, and it is a perfect mission for NASA, as it it has no possibility of ever turning a profit. It’s a pure-scientific mission of exploration and discovery.

Wikipedia: NASA’s Space Interferometry Mission ( SIM )


NASA’s Long-Term Terrestrial Planet-Finder Plans:


Hubble Images:


Wikipedia: The Hubble Space Telescope:


 My first essay on this blog adressed the potential impact that space interferometry will ultimately have on the question of life’s presence and prevolance in the universe. Personally, I think that data from the space interferometer will ultimately  prove to be definitive on the matter. Here is a link to that essay. The ensuing comment-fest following that essay wound up being a spirited and informative debate on the whole Evolution versus Intelligent Design controversy. The link is included here for those interested in the subject, as well as a link to Dr. William Dembski’s Intelligent Design Weblog…

Evolution Versus Intelligent Design:


Dr. William Dembski’s Blog:


 I want to thank everybody out there reading this, for taking the time to consider my opinions and ideas. I realize that I tend to run a bit long, and that I am paragraphically challenged. I dont claim to know everything, or have all the answers, but I am pretty sure that the space program is currently not on the right track, and I hope I have thrown some ideas and alternatives on the table that are worthy of consideration by those interested in the matter. I do think that our long-term survival  depends on us becoming a space-faring species. Remember, we have all of our eggs in one basket here. We are a teensy-weensy carbon-based life-form, with a very small foothold, on a very tiny blue speck of dirt and water, in a VERY large, cold, and un-caring universe. There have already been several ELE’s ( Extinction Level Events ) in our planet’s history, and statistically speaking, we are almost due for another one.  Right now, even as we speak, there probably IS a rock flying though space at millions of miles per hour that the un-ending graviational waltz of heavenly bodies will eventually send our way – with potentially fatal consequences. That could be a thousand years from now, a million years from now, or tomorrow, but it’s probably coming. And perhaps the even greater threat is our own self-threatening tendencies as a species- our warlike tendencies, our hatreds, our inability to get along with one another. Combine those tendencies with advances in biotechnology and the potential production of bio-agents, super-viruses, and biological weapons of mass-destuction, and  you have a human future that is NOT a sure-thing. If it turns out that  we really ARE the only sentient beings in the universe, and anything ever DID happen to wipe us out as a species on this small planet orbiting a tiny yellow star, well… then that’s the proverbial ballgame isnt it? It’s something to think about….It probably IS worth establishing another branch of the human family tree elsewhere- just in case. At any rate, we don’t really seem to be currently on-track to achieve any kind of Human Destiny out there in the stars. I hope that changes, and soon. While my faith in a Human Destiny in space has not died or been shaken by the recent stagnation of the Space Program , my faith in the current caretakers OF that dream HAS died. I think it’s time to do as Sammy Hagar once said, and “Dream another Dream… this Dream is over.”

Suggested Links:

The definitive book on the current state of affairs at NASA… Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age by Greg Klerkx: 


Ward and Brownlee’s Rare Earth Hypothesis / the Fermi Paradox:


Books by Micheal Behe, ( arch-advocate for Intelligent Design and Irreducible Complexity):



Robert Zubrin: Author and arch-advocate of “Mars-Direct” plan:


Carl Sagan’s vision of a Human Destiny in space:


The Encode Project… More bad news for Darwinism, and more evidence in support of Irreducible Complexity: “The picture that’s emerging of how living cells actually operate and evolve is so immensely more complicated than anyone imagined, it’s almost depressing”….”illness, health, and evolutionary change appear to be the work of an almost fantastical coordination between genes and swaths of DNA previously written off as junk”:


The Apollo Program:


Orion and Ares, the sucessors to the Space Shutle:


Shadow of the Moon movie:


Nasa Budget:


The International Space Station:


The Space Shuttle:


“Men From Earth”, my favorite first-hand account of the true-life epic adventure that was the Apollo program. Written by my favorite astronaut, Buzz Aldrin:


Read Full Post »