Burt Rutan (builder of Spaceship One) calls the NASA plan to return to the Moon "an archaeological dig." He isn’t kidding.
The Bush administration has announced some details of its massive crash program to "put a man on the Moon by 2020," or only about twice as long as it took in 1961 when no one knew anything about spaceflight, personal computers, etc. The plan for the launch vehicle is to use copies of the original 1960s Moon rocket engines from the upper stages of the Saturn V, except for the first stage which will use far less efficient and more expensive solid fuels. No, they are not kidding.
The crew capsule (a somewhat larger version of the Apollo capsule) will be named Orion in mocking reference to the far more ambitious 1960s nuclear-pulse rocket program. It will travel to the Moon using copies of the Centaur engine, the very first hydrogen-oxygen engine ever built (in the early 1960s). This is the equivalent of using copies of the Nina and the Pinta to replace steamships. But as NASA says, it’s certainly "mature technology."
Except that the "mature technology" will be assembled six decades after it was designed. The Nazi engineers who conceived the Saturn V have long ago died of old age. So the intrepid explorers in 2020 will be using antique chemical rocket engines, but in completely new and untested vehicles. Steamship engineers aren’t necessarily very good at building caravels.
The long-term goal is to put four astronauts on the Moon for six months in 2024. There should be no problem resupplying them, as by 2024 there will be numerous good Chinese restaurants on the lunar surface.
NASA has been steadily hurtling backward in technological time ever since 1972, when the last man left the Moon. The Saturn V which carried Harrison Schmitt could launch 250,000 pounds into orbit. The Shuttle weighed almost as much, but could only carry a theoretical maximum of 65,000 pounds (most actual launches have carried much less). And of course the Shuttle cost much more per delivered weight. A recent Popular Mechanics article pegged the Shuttle cost at about $115 billion for 115 launches, roughly $20,000 per pound.
The 1970s-design Russian rockets that support the US-financed Space Station and carry DirecTV satellites to orbit cost a bit over a tenth as much. Several private companies offer launches at comparable prices per pound, even while being undercut in the market by NASA-subsidized launchers. Getting to orbit simply isn’t rocket science any more.
The energy required to put a pound into orbit is about four kilowatt-hours… even in California you can buy that much energy for a buck. If there were secure property rights in space, then it would be worth it for private companies to invest in non-rocket technologies: jet bottom stages, electromagnetic catapults, gas guns, cables hanging down from orbiting asteroids… there are literally hundreds of engineering designs floating around. The same was true in the early period of air travel… the difference is that government didn’t monopolize air travel, or make it illegal to build new technologies. (Just try applying for a permit to build a nuclear cargo rocket….)
I’m not suggesting that NASA should or could be run more "efficiently." The 20th century showed definitively that a government agency can’t even grow rice efficiently, let alone build "new worlds and new civilizations." But we should be concerned that they aren’t even pretending to try… it means they think Americans won’t look up from their TVs no matter WHAT nonsense their rulers impose on them.
If NASA were to announce that they were going to use the 1960s NERVA nuclear rockets, build a Moonbase, go to Mars, etc., that would be plausible. Useless, irrelevant to real space industrialization and colonization, but bureaucratically plausible. If they were to announce that they were going to build rockets to travel to the close-approach asteroids and move them to Earth orbit, that would be plausible. But, try to stop thinking about Anna Nicole for a couple of seconds and focus here: they aren’t doing any of this. They never will.
The announced official space policy of the United States is that it will spend hundreds of billions of dollars to re-enact the 1960s Moon landing, but at half the speed of the original program. This would be like the State Department announcing that they were going to re-enact the Crusades, but use modern Cold War military equipment and spend trillions of…. Oh yeah, they’re doing that too.
The US government has abandoned any pretense of planning to live in a plausible future. The only firm guide to US policy is that nothing is permitted that has not been done before. This isn’t an unusual policy… for senile Emperors of decaying Empires.
Let’s just hope that no asteroids land on us before some other, freer nation starts the real (capitalist) migration into space.
Bill Walker [send him mail] works in HIV and gene therapy research in Rochester, Minnesota.