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NASA and the Pentagon

NASA boss Charles Bolden goes to the Senate today to get grilled on the decision by the Obama administration to kill Constellation. Constellation isn't dead yet, of course. Congress has to sign off on the plan. Industries are lobbying away. And there's one element of this story that we haven't discussed much in recent weeks: The implications for national security.

Rockets are special things. They're national security assets. You can't outsource their construction. Space News just editorialized on this (I can't find a good link for some reason), the gist being that the kind of solid rocket motors that help put the space shuttle in orbit, and which would have been used in the new Ares 1 rocket, are also used in ballistic missiles.

You cancel a big order from the civilian space agency, it has an impact on a sensitive industry, suddenly the Pentagon is aflutter, titans of industry are confounded, and people who think we're a few misguided policy changes from Total Annihilation are getting on their Bat Phones to raise a ruckus. Soon there's rancor, rage, and people screaming stuff like, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

You know the Pentagon spends more on space than NASA, right?

Everyone wants mastery of the high ground.

Meanwhile, here's Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society saying that NASA desperately needs a destination (and you know which one he has in mind), rather than merely a bunch of technological aspirations:

"The American people want and deserve a human spaceflight program that really is going somewhere, and not just anywhere, but to a destination that is really worth going to. That destination is Mars. For the past four decades since the end of Apollo, Mars is the challenge that has stared the American space program in the face. A world with varied resources and a past history that includes oceans of liquid water, Mars is the Rosetta stone that will tell whether the development of life from chemistry is a general phenomenon in the universe, and whether life as we know it on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere, or alternatively that we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry of possibilities. Moreover, Mars is the closest world that truly has the resources needed for human settlement. For our generation and those that will follow, Mars is the New World. We should not shun its challenge."

Update: Lots of good comments as always in the boodle, and I want to call attention to this one by ScienceTim, our house astronomer:

Zubrin's argument for Mars is specious: if what we really want is to look for extant life, people are the last thing that you want to send. Grody bags of bacteria and biochemical waste, that's what we are. We would contaminate everything. Once we have satisfied ourselves on the issue of extant life (which may take a while), THEN it could make sense to send people down.

Nevertheless, the flexibility of human operations is very handy in exploration. People can grab a likely-looking rock, turn it over a couple of times and see how the light scatters from the surface, look for the fracture lines, then whack that rock with a hammer to crack it open and see what's inside -- all without undergoing days of planning and review and mission-assurance qualification and simulations just to evaluate smacking one measly rock with a hammer. Steve Squyres (MER mission PI) has noted that while the rovers are great, most of what they have done over several years could have been accomplished in a few days or weeks by a human geologist.

I prefer a hybrid program that is more consistent with the Augustine Commission -- send people to Phobos or Mars orbit, but don't land people on Mars, which is very difficult. From orbit, deliver tele-operated rovers to Mars. Build a bunch of them, since they don't need to be all that smart, just mechanically competent. With human processing power behind them, you could easily drive a rover 10X faster than the current rovers, for much faster transitions between sites. You could change your mind about targets much more easily, and you could make more-capable remote manipulators because you don't have to make them fully robotic. You can't do that from Earth because of the light-travel time. You have to be relatively nearby for telepresence, and orbit is close enough.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 24, 2010; 10:54 AM ET
 
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Comments

Has Mr. Zubrin asked the Martians whether they would welcome an invasion?

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I haven't found any good discussion of repurposing the components, which I hope is feasible. Inasmuch as I believe robotic missions are a precursor which don't preclude later Mars manned missions, then concentration on robotics at this time conceivably IS the path to Mars.

In other news here's a neat product I'm slavering over, a $100 reader, a dedicated portable Wikipedia reader. If it would load public domain things such as Treasure Island on it I'd have one ordered already.
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B002N5521W/ref=nosim/findnet0f-20

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 24, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Sure, in a perfect world, we'd fund space exploration. But the reality is, there is not enough money to do everything we would like to do. So if the Pentagon was relying on NASA to do some of its rocket R&D, and considers the rockets critical to its mission, then the Pentagon should figure out which of its other programs should be cut to free up the funding. Sooner or later we all have to accept that Daddy can't buy all of us ponies.

Posted by: Raysmom | February 24, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

If the Martians have any objections to our incursions, all they have to do is shoot down a couple of our space shuttles to let us know...

Oh, never mind.

Posted by: bobsewell | February 24, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

My point xactlee, BobS!

They've already signaled their preference. Mr. Zubrin apparently didn't get the memo.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Hmmmm. I'm pretty skeptical of a couple of Zubrin's claims. Joel, could you and SciTim weigh in on the general accurracy of this statement: "Mars is the Rosetta stone that will tell whether the development of life from chemistry is a general phenomenon in the universe..." Really? You mean we can't answer this question absent a manned flight to Mars? C'mon.

"Mars is the closest world that truly has the resources needed for human settlement." Well, yes, it is closest. But exactly what resources does it have? No water. No breathable air. No significant temperature we can survive in. Yes, it isn't molten, and yes, it has a surface you can actually walk on. But really, don't we have a somewhat higher standard than that?

Also, could someone explain the urgency factor? Yes, it might be nice to send someone...but are we in a hurry? Could we not wait a generation or two, until we get our act together a little better on THIS planet? Mind you, I possibly don't *object* to going to Mars, but I need to be sold on its importance. Because frankly when Zurbin asserts that the American people "want" a destination-based manned program, I think he's pretty much full of ----. (That we "deserve" one is simply crap, but arguable crap. It's the alleged factual basis of we "want" such a program I am dubious about.)

I understand Zurbin is an advocate for a cause. I just think he's lost me due to his lack of what I'd regard as credibility. I need to believe these people before I'm will to vote for or endorse a gazillion-dollar program that is purely discretionary.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Well, there are a number of people on my list whom I would be thrilled to put on a rocket (sorta like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove) and send them off to Mars.

That's what you meant, right?

Posted by: -ftb- | February 24, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

SCC: Zubrin

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, pretty much, ftb, though I doubt most of them would go. Not that I'm opposed to the use of force.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

I'm uncertain that there is a great thirst for a manned space program. Robots can discern any writing on the Mars Rosetta stone better and more cheaply than sending a frail human body there. Even the moon landing was a PR stunt more than a justified scientific inquiry.

I actually think the future of manned spaceflight is in exploiting near earth orbit more for economic or military reasons. That might even justify a lunar base if the proposed engineering projects in earth orbit are large enough to make lunar materials out of a shallower gravity well more cost effective than boosting them from earth.

Posted by: edbyronadams | February 24, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

I must’ve taken stoopid pills today. Need help in removing the fuzzy mind clouds.

Mr. A said, “Rockets are special things. They're national security assets. You can't outsource their construction.”

So who builds the rockets today, NASA? The military? Or do they oversee the construction of those rockets and the heavy lifting is done by corporations with top secret clearance?

If the latter, what changes in the future, national-securitywise? Can’t the military and DoD contract out ballistic missile construction to the same folks who currently do that sort of technological whizbang stuff on NASA’s budget? Same companies, same top secret technologies, just with the money coming out of a different pocket of Uncle Sam’s pants?

It would be the “we’re going to explore space” stuff that would go to different companies, like SpaceX. The “we’re going to annihilate you” technologies would still be under military control with the companies they’re used to dealing with.

Obviously, I’m missing something. Looking for clarity from Mr. A and/or the boodle.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Currently, I embed all of my unused pharmaceuticals in acrylic resin, encase that in a Hycrete W1000 concrete admixture, and drop the package into the Cascadia Subduction Zone trench off the coast of Cape Mendocino.

Do you think it would be better to shoot them into space somewhere? And if so, would it be better to send them into the Sun, or out of the solar system entirely?

Posted by: bobsewell | February 24, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Actually Mudge I believe that the only truly vital resource which can only be obtained from Mars is fluffy nougat.

Posted by: kguy1 | February 24, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Well, I must admit I don't find the national security argument terribly persuasive. The implication is that the military technology is dependent on the civilian, when it is actually the other way around.

And I guarantee that the military requirements will get funded regardless of what happens to NASA.

Now, there is a legitimate argument that we might lose the technical base needed specifically for civilian manned spaceflight. But the solution there isn't to keep building things you don't want so that they won't forget how to make them.

The solution is to devote a reasonable amount of money to documenting existing techniques. Technical people, in general, are really bad at keeping records. The most common paradigm is for technical expertise to be passed from generation to generation via oral tradition like Grandma's Manicotti recipe. This is absurd and we shouldn't throw billions into a program we don't want just because of it.


Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

As for the "Go to Mars" approach, that's fine so long as what you really want to do is just go to Mars.

Going to Mars is really, really hard and so the technology developed will tend to contract to support that specific goal, and no other.

This happens all the time. Engineers work to the precise requirements specified and nothing more, especially if that requirement is exceedingly challenging.

So if you tell people to make a rocket to Mars that's what you will get. Just don't expect that technology to carry you anyplace else.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I suppose the fact is that subcontractors can supply rocket fuel by the kiloton cheaper if they make more of it. Economies of scale.

I wouldn't say the moon landings were FOR photo-ops. At the time there were huge unknowns. The science done there might have been disappointing as far as finding resources but it wasn't then known. And robotics were not reliable.

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 24, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm with Padouk and MsJS: I don't find the military argument persuasive, either. They kind of rocket you'd build to get to MARS would NOT have any special application to any rockets the Pentagon would want to build. As Padouk points out, the military/civilian pipeline flows the other way, and I'm surprised someone would even assert the opposite. The rocket program, which was effectively born during WWII, had its genesis in this country as military, before either NACA or NASA ever got involved. It was the Navy who was building all those Vanguard missiles, the Army building the Redstones (post V-2 work), etc. The first Mercury capsules were launched aboard Redstones, IIRC, and then I think we switched to Titans, which were Air Force, if my memory is correct.

These people need to be more careful with their claims. You can't win your case with bogus arguments. Not everybody is a Republican, ya know.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe that with all our technology and all our resources, we can't make artificial fluffy nougat here. I mean, sure, it might not be "the real thing," but heck, can't come "close enough for government work"?

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

BobS: Once you shoot unused meds out of the solar system, you lose control of where they go, who finds them, and what they do with them.

Personally, I'd lose a lot of sleep over worrying about that. Would the ETs think it an attack and respond in kind, or would they laugh hysterically over the primitive nature of Earth-based pharmaceuticals? Either way, not good for humanity.

I'm in favor of all trash being shot at the sun. It's simple and there's no need to presort beforehand.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Who get's to define where the New World is? If it is new real-estate you want, why go to Mars?

Heck, I've heard tell that if you gather together several hundred thousand people to be relocated into deep mine shafts, where radioactivity would never penetrate the U.S. can be repopulated....

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Aye, it's times like this that I miss Error Flynn. He was always up for a good Dr Strangelove throwdown...

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

As soon as I read national security, the first thing I thought of (which I hadn't before in the discussion of Constellation) was what the plan will be for taking all the top secret satellites into orbit, but that wasn't actually the issue. To my point, I wonder if those tasks will be outsourced as well, with the Russians providing the service in the meantime?

Posted by: engelmann | February 24, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

It's a fluffy nougat gap!

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

From Sunday's paper, a space-related article:

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/SA_scientists_hope_to_blaze_a_trail_into_suborbital_space.html

SwRI also in the news here on Tuesday:

http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local_news/SwRI_working_to_make_smart_power_grid_safer.html

Posted by: laloomis | February 24, 2010 12:51 PM | Report abuse

The trouble with relocating a couple hundred thou of people to mineshafts, Padouk, is we could never get the ^%$#@&^% mortgage companies to loosen up the loans. By colonizing Mars, we don't have that whole real estate problem. We just send along a bunch of covered wagons, and after we land, we tell the settlers to hop in the wagons and go find themselves 100-acre tracts, or whatever. Look at the up side: no zoning hassles, no building codes, no termite inspection, none of that red tape crap. Why, there aren't even any indigenous people to steal their land away from (which I admit might take the sport out of it).

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

There's a lot of rockets out there to get stuff into orbit. The problem is that they aren't, technically, rated for people. But there is an argument that they could me made that way.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

'Mudge: There _are_ Martians. See BobS' 11:46.

Based on what they seem capable of, covered wagons ain't gonna do it.

And the planet's red. How else if not from red tape?

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

I think you guys are overanalyzing the military-civilian link. It's true if you tighten the strings enough you may get a one use solution but that's a planning issue. Generally, if a rocket can reach Mars it can usually reach a closer destination (potentially other inner planets). Plenty of civilian technologies have been madeover for military use (transport or refuleling aircraft for example). My biggest eyebrow raiser is why the military wants to get out of low earth orbit.

Mudge, I think Mars is a preferred destination because it's relatively close, it has a gravity well that can support an atmosphere and the temperature range is not as outrageous as other locales. All in all it's one of the less lethal environments. Surviving the trip would be much harder than surviving on the surface.

As for manned exploration, I'll say it again. Getting people there and back is an end in itself. Living there is an end in itself. I am fine with that even though I know many will reasonably argue it is not enough.

Posted by: qgaliana | February 24, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I always assumed Mars was red from embarrassment, being located right next to a planet full of morons and pultroons.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Is the Danish women's curling team part of the mineshaft repopulation plan? If so, I'm in.

Posted by: yellojkt | February 24, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

The fluffy nougat gap can be filled with... nuts!

And now for something to whet your nougat jones-

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100222/ap_on_re_us/us_seniors_marijuana

Posted by: kguy1 | February 24, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

You know, there is a more disturbing way of interpreting the national security argument. I was viewing it as being based on the misguided notion that civilian technology feeds military technology.

But another way of viewing this argument is
that cutting these civilian programs might so damage these companies financially that they can't support their military missions.

Now, I think this is a spurious argument. But what if it is true? Turn it around and you are forced to conclude that some of the money that is supposed to be spent on civilian aerospace actually underwrites (at least via overhead) military efforts. Or, in other words, the argument becomes that we need civilian rocketry because the military budget isn't big enough so they need to sponge off of NASA.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I didn't know there were morons and pultroons on Jupiter.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

When NASA got started, the DoD already was working on adapting missiles to launch vehicles. Eisenhower wanted a specifically civilian agency, with a specifically civilian launcher, to be the leader in US space. It was both a demonstration to the rest of the world that we were not developing space as a purely military asset, and a demonstration to the military-industrial complex (remember them?) that they would not be able to keep a death-grip on space flight on the basis of clearances and national security considerations. That reasoning still is applicable.

I think that Joel's point about national security is that although the launch technology is technically civilian, it is procured from the same companies that produce military hardware. Those companies have made major investments (mostly government-funded, of course) on the basis of the civilian space program and have made plans on the basis of expecting a certain stream of civilian-flight revenue. Now that stream either is cut off, or more likely will continue from DoD faucets. Net savings: $0. If the faucets are closed, it's a major shake-up.

The DoD has access to launch vehicles -- the venerable Delta and Atlas programs. In the past, they also had a lot involvement in setting parameters for the civilian program -- part of the reason for the Shuttle being so big and unwieldy is that it was designed to transport the KH-11 reconnaissance satellite, which is why Hubble is the same size and shape. Hubble was made to fit the space made by the military.

Posted by: ScienceTim | February 24, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I took the military argument to be that, if you let just anybody build rockets, they will have the technology to use for good (space travel) or bad (blowing people up). But I would hope that's regulated, like airplanes or computers or nuclear...Oh...At any rate, I think the cat's out of the bag, the horse is out of the barn, the fat lady has sung, etc...

Posted by: seasea1 | February 24, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Zubrin's argument for Mars is specious: if what we really want is to look for extant life, people are the last thing that you want to send. Grody bags of bacteria and biochemical waste, that's what we are. We would contaminate everything. Once we have satisfied ourselves on the issue of extant life (which may take a while), THEN it could make sense to send people down.

Nevertheless, the flexibility of human operations is very handy in exploration. People can grab a likely-looking rock, turn it over a couple of times and see how the light scatters from the surface, look for the fracture lines, then whack that rock with a hammer to crack it open and see what's inside -- all without undergoing days of planning and review and mission-assurance qualification and simulations just to evaluate smacking one measly rock with a hammer. Steve Squyres (MER mission PI) has noted that while the rovers are great, most of what they have done over several years could have been accomplished in a few days or weeks by a human geologist.

I prefer a hybrid program that is more consistent with the Augustine Commission -- send people to Phobos or Mars orbit, but don't land people on Mars, which is very difficult. From orbit, deliver tele-operated rovers to Mars. Build a bunch of them, since they don't need to be all that smart, just mechanically competent. With human processing power behind them, you could easily drive a rover 10X faster than the current rovers, for much faster transitions between sites. You could change your mind about targets much more easily, and you could make more-capable remote manipulators because you don't have to make them fully robotic. You can't do that from Earth because of the light-travel time. You have to be relatively nearby for telepresence, and orbit is close enough.

There are a lot of other destinations in the solar system that do not pose major landing problems. Specifically, near-Earth asteroids and the asteroid belt. There are a lot of OTHER problems with visiting these sites (very long travel times, lots of opportunity to be exposed to radiation from solar flares), but landing is not so much one of them.

Posted by: ScienceTim | February 24, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

"I didn't know there were morons and pultroons on Jupiter." - MsJS

"I think Man is the most interesting insect on the Planet Earth." - Marvin The Martian

Posted by: byoolin1 | February 24, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if one could move the ISS to Mars orbit. Maybe it could be done without people on board? Does Mars offer some protection from radiation like Earth?

Posted by: engelmann | February 24, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Methane-snorting pultroons, MsJS. The very worst kind.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Regarding the questions from engelmann:
Could? Yes. But pointlessly difficult.
Without people on board? Indubitably.
Some protection from radiation? Well, some, in the same sense that a T-shirt provides some of the protection of Kevlar body armor.

Posted by: ScienceTim | February 24, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see a scientist on Mars, poking around. But I'm also kind of fiscally minded and if you can't do it for less than umpteen trillion dollars I think it's a no-go. On Mudge's question, I think you're right -- you could probe the Martian life issue more easily with a robotic sample-return mission, something that is technologically far more doable than sending a live human being. Of course there would be huge Andromeda Strain fears and hysteria but I think it could be done with existing technology and within a reasonable budget (I believe NASA has plans for such a mission at some point).

Posted by: joelache | February 24, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Memo To: MrJS
From: MsJS
Re: Jupiter Vacation Plans

Scratch them. I ain't going.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

From the Kit, part of Zubrin's comment:

Mars is the Rosetta stone that will tell whether the development of life from chemistry is a general phenomenon in the universe, and whether life as we know it on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere, or alternatively that we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry of possibilities.

My questions, since I have no idea whatsoever...

(That said, I do have some knowlege of Earth's Rosetta Stone, historically... Bouchard and his block of black basalt and Napoleon's "Soldiers, from the tops of these pyramids, forty centuries are looking down at you." ):

How firm is the Rosetta Stone/Mars analogy? Wild guess? Best guess? Educated guess? Unknown known? Known known? What will scientists be looking for, specifically, in the rocks of Mars?

Posted by: laloomis | February 24, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

For rover operation command, I'd think a geostationary orbit (about 17,000 kilometers above the surface for Mars, I reckon) would be preferable to either Phobos or Deimos. And if you're roving in the polar regions, both of them orbit too close to the surface and too close to the equator to be visible near the poles.

Posted by: bobsewell | February 24, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

That's a cool idea englemann, but I agree with SciTim. Not worth the cost. The ISS is a classic example of something built to a fixed requirement. Its solar cells, structural stability, storage capacity and a host of other things are intended for operating in earth orbit and nothing much else.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Oy.
A busy day and a lot to comment on here.

Mudge, buddy, we've been landing unmanned craft on Mars for 34 years, and we still can't conclusively say if there's life there now, much less if there ever was. If knowing that is important, then there's no better way to be sure than to send someone. [Yes, that's intentionally ambigious and circular.]

I don't buy into Zubrin's 'Mars as Rosetta Stone' idea with respect to extraterrestrial life; more like another page in the Big Effing Book of Everything. And I'm not worried about contaminating Mars or any other planets with Terrestrial bugs, just as I'm not worried about Them contaminating Us. We're Humans and we have a lot of baggage - intellectual, emotional, spiritual, as well as the physical. Life is messy, and so is love.

Who are we to deny Mars love and laughter, thougtfulness and tears, the spark of the divine that's within all of humanity?

I don't buy into the idea that we're not good enough or smart enough or brave enough for this Universe, that we're supposed to know our place and stay there.

I understand life and intelligence to be engergetic, expansive forces within our ever-changing 'verse, and we can continue to grow, to learn, to change, and adapt as our corner of Everything changes, or we can become stagnant and decrepit, and get comfy on our couches and watch this stroke of life and intelligence wither away.

Perhaps machines are our future, but I refuse to be at the mercy of or limited by my tools. I refuse to believe I'm not good enough for the Universe, and that I should just shut up and know my place and stay on this planet, and be happy with a couch and a computer and whatever a pair of plyers with a camera on it can show me.

Bah!
There's life out there in this Universe, there's love out there, there's failure and tragedy and joy and sorrow, and fear, and acceptance and ultimately, death.

But first a little roo-roo.

No, seriously - Everything is out there, even if I need to bring some of it with me, picinic style.

Now, what were we talking about again?
The roo-roo threw me off.

bc

Posted by: -bc- | February 24, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

That was exactly my question, too, Loomis: I think the Rosetta Stone argument is completely bogus. My guess is that whatever Zubrin knows about Mars, he knows almost nothing about the Rosetta Stone, and what it means in terms of metaphor.

The RS provided a key in how to decipher a dead language that up until that point had resisted all attempts at translation. As a metaphor, it means opening up the key to a previously unknown thing. Zubrin's use of it as metaphor works ONLY if we go to Mars (with a manned vehicle, which is really irrelevant) and find some sort of life form, but not just an alien life form but one based upon previously unknown biological principles. THAT would be the key to his question, "and whether life as we know it on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere, or alternatively that we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry of possibilities."

Where the metaphor fails is if we go, we find an alien creepy-crawly, and it, too, operates more or less off of basic, known, carbon-based organic chemistry. It would certainly be a vastly interesting discovery -- but it wouldn't answer his own question. All it would show is that there are similar life forms on two adjacent planets. It does *not* provide a key to the nature or diverse nature of all life forms, if they even exist, throughtout the universe. Which is the bogus claim he's making.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 2:30 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and Mudge, first US human-rated launchers were the Redstone and Atlas (the latter an ICBM adaptation, IIRC) for Mercury, then Titans for the larger 2-man Gemini (another ICBM adaptation, I believe), then the Saturn I for Apollo missions to earth orbit (and later used for the Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab flights in the 70's IIRC), then Saturn V for the Lunar missions.

Then the Shuttle, and that's all the American human-rated launch HW I'm aware of. As *Tim points out, I imagine we could adapt Delta or Titan HW for human-rated LEO flights if we had to. With the proper capsule/payload, of course. Er, I guess the X-15 counts, too, though it wasn't orbital.

bc

Posted by: -bc- | February 24, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

SciTim, are you suggesting there aren't astronauts just lining up to land in the bouncing air bag system? :-)

The landing issue is a good point. It's also likely to be a serious expense and difficulty since landing on Earth is not the same as landing on an airless rock nor the same as landing on an almost but not quite airless planet. You could come up with a pretty generic solution to haul you around the solar system, but getting down would probably be mission specific.

Then again it may not make sense to leave the spacecraft at all unless we plan to setup something planetside that we will return to every now and then (practical things like a leanto, a stash of firewood and some racks for drying fish). The trip itself is a major achievement.

I wonder if perhaps we are too hung up on the science and the ROI. I think you could get a lot of useful engineering and biological information from a month long joyride in interplanetary space without actually going anywhere. We might actually get a better idea then about what it would cost us to go to another planet.

Posted by: qgaliana | February 24, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Look, I'm telling you guys. We don't need no destination, its, like, a Road Trip, man. You know, load up on the Red Bull and Twinkies, polish up the fins, check the tire pressure and head on out.

Granted, this vision might require a little tweaking.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

qgaliana, I think that's why folks are advocating exploring NEOs/asteroids, and Phobos & Deimos.

And sorry, I think ya gotta get out of the ship wherever you go, if for no other reasons than to plant the flag and relieve oneself (preferably away from the cameras).

Dude, I've been holding it since we left Lunar Orbit...

bc

Posted by: -bc- | February 24, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

bc, I take exactly the same piece of evidence you do, that we've been landing unmanned stuff on Mars for 34 years, and draw exactly the opposite conclusion you do: if there was something there's we'd have found some unambiguous sign of it by now. We got pix galore, we got soil samples, we've seen rocks and craters, yadda yadda. Just what the heck do you want? Either (a) There. Is. Nothing. There; or (b) if there is something there, it is so freaking small and unmoving that it really ceases to be "interesting" as a life form, or (c) there used to be something, but it died long ago and left no significant trace, except perhaps microscopically.

I am not prepared to endorse spending a gazillion dollars simply to "make sure." We have a ton of evidence, all of which says "no." You want to spend a gazillion to turn "almost certainly, 99.9999 percent no" into "let's make conclusively sure." I'm just not buying it. I'm pretty comfortable with 99.9999 percent.

Now, if you want to talk about geology, or planet formation, and stuff like that, yes, perhaps there is something to be learned, maybe even quite a lot. But please. We've have got to take our heads out of Jules Verne and be realistic, not romantic. There is nothing there, 99.9999 percent likely.

Anyway, it is foolish to send a man to Mars, because as everyone knows (pace Tommy Kirk), Mars needs women.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I would like to point out that it's almost 3 pm, and you all are still on kit. Is that a record?

Posted by: rickoshea1 | February 24, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

*laughing, Maggie*

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

RD, that's about right, you can call them shakedown cruises if you want a more military sounding dignity.

BC, I agree, but if you don't even plan to get out the first few times you can seriously cut down on the sticker shock of the project.

Mudge, it doesn't matter that there is nothing there. The point of sending people is so that there will be something there.

Posted by: qgaliana | February 24, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

But that wasn't the question, qg. The question was whether manned missions would resolve the life issue: "we still can't conclusively say if there's life there now, much less if there ever was...there's no better way to be sure than to send someone."

If, as you say the point is simply to "be" there ourselves, then I am more opposed to going than I was before.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

Florida Today discusses extending the shuttle. I guess they're making the best possible case in favor. Doesn't look promising to me.
http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20100224/NEWS02/2240345/Can-shuttle-program-be-extended

The Orlando Sentinel on upcoming hearings on doing away with going to the moon:
http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/os-bolden-faces-congress-20100223,0,1336067.story

The story mentions Representative Posey, whose district's economy is entwined in the fortunes of Kennedy Space Center. Apart from supporting space and the military and VA (submarines, Air Force, and retirees in his district), Posey claims he would pretty much get rid of the federal government.

Governor Crist didn't allow anyone from the state government to attend the annual U.S. Coral Reef Task Force in Washington, even with the feds paying travel expenses. Perhaps Marco Rubio would find fault in wanting to conserve reefs?

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | February 24, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm not opposed on principal to future manned space missions to the moon, Mars or other destinations. Right now, though, we really can't afford it. It's going to have to be enough to keep the ISS up and stable, keep Hubble going, and do more robotics. What we really need is the quantum mechanics science that will get us some equivalent of warp drive. REAL space exploration will only occur when it only takes hours or days to get from here to there, instead of months or years. It's been what, almost 40 years since the Voyagers were launched, and they are just now leaving the solar system?

Posted by: ebtnut | February 24, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

well, Mars has...ummm...huge tracts of land...

Posted by: -jack- | February 24, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

But Mudge, we just found water on the moon. Took us long enough. Not so sure I can get on board with the idea that if the life form is tiny, it's insignificant.

Then again, isn't size Pluto's problem?

Posted by: LostInThought | February 24, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I suppose we could exile polluting industries to the moon.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | February 24, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

Just as leeches are useful in human medicine, non-viable wolf populations may improve the health of ecosystems. Even a single pack could do things like control pesky deer.

http://www.aibs.org/bioscience-press-releases/100201_managed_wolf_populations_could_restore_ecosystems.html

Maybe a pack or two for Princeton?

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | February 24, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Random thoughts from the Kit and comments:

Sometimes a sense of urgency for a project simply means the person advocating it strongly feels the project must be launched, or completed, while they are still around to work on it or enjoy it.

I have another possibility to add to Mudge's Life on Mars series: there is life, it is sneaky and fast-moving, and either doesn't want us to know it is there (thus avoiding the robot probes) or is taunting us.

I want a bat phone. I want a pony.

And where is my Desires Fork?

Posted by: Ivansmom | February 24, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I put it away, Ivansmom, it's not good for you to have it.

Posted by: slyness | February 24, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it's just me, but doesn't this guy-

http://www.rfi.fr/actuen/images/119/MOTOR_RACING_TOYOTA_432.jpg

remind you of this guy-

http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Nien_Nunb

Posted by: kguy1 | February 24, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

RD_P, in a comical way you've hit on one my sticking points.

A road trip is something a person (or group of people) can directly experience. There are other sorts of 'direct experience' activities, doesn't have to be a road trip.

I'm not against space exploration, but it seems to me that NASA has fallen short on explaining the 'direct experience' component of their grand plan.

Hubble photos are popular because people can download them and play with them (as I did with the Valentine's Day video for the A-blog). They're also free.

Setting up a Moon colony or going to Mars has no inexpensive immediate thrill, regardless of the merits. The idea of "a scientist poking around" to quote Mr. A, doesn't play well when compared to something like Hubble.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 3:37 PM | Report abuse

I dunno, LiT, I hear what you're saying. But from the moment that "we found water on the moon" story broke, my reaction was, "mmmmmmmmm, no, you didn't." What they found was traces of water so infintesimally small as to be (in my mind anyway, for whatever that's worth) pretty much worthless as a viable "resource." After that discovery people where writing stories and speculating about how this made colonization easier, yadda yadda, but my reaction was that it was all mental [self-abuse]. In order to get a gallon of water someone would have to "mine" 30 acres, or something like that. And it occurred to me that schlepping enough heavy equipment to the moon to mine 30 acres of moondirt to get a gallon of water was, on its face, absurd.

So yes, we found water. And the counter-argument is, we found water -- with a robotic mission. No human needed. So that tends to shoot down the manned-mission--is-better argument. We had men on the moon. They missed the water.

The problem with the "there's water on the moon" claim, to me, is that it is like one of those claims you see once in a while that says something like, "Every 10 tons of seawater contains a milligram of gold." As though we could somehow magically extract that gold or something. The effort to extract is way disporportionate to the end product. That's how I feel about water on the moon.

I realize everybody else seemed to get excited about it, though. Just not me.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

Ah, I wasn't speaking to the exo-life issue at all, Mudge. I was speaking more to BC's notion of bring love, laughter etc. As I said, many will reasonably disagree.

I mostly see the manned vs unmanned discussion as a choice between pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge or pushing back the boundaries of human experience. I just think the latter is lagging badly behind the former.

You've never wondered what kind of concrete someone might mixup with that fine martian dust?

Posted by: qgaliana | February 24, 2010 3:42 PM | Report abuse

So, Mudge, sailing the Ocean of Night isn't romantic?

Good point about the water on the moon, LiT. All the more reason to go there.

bc

Posted by: -bc- | February 24, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the replies. Obviously I was blue-skying with the ISS idea. I had thought, though, that one of the primary problems was getting all the heavy stuff off Earth. I thought that this might be a practical use for the ISS plus accomplish a step in a Mars mission. The extent of the radiation problem is greater than I thought. I'd like to do some reading on that point.

Given how close the ISS came to becoming a pretty flash across the sky in a few years, if the primary problem is getting it there it still seems a lot better use for the ISS to send it on even a slow trip to high Mars orbit. This idea is starting to become making a mission to fit the equipment (which is a problem), but I have to think that a orbiting lab above Mars has all kinds of uses.

Off topic, since it was pointed out that we're unusually fixated today (must be highly visible Mars in the early night sky) I recommend a book I just finished- Madame Bovary's Ovaries - a look at literature from the perspective of evolutionary biology.

Posted by: engelmann | February 24, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Hi all!

Forgive me if this was covered elsewhere, but I don't have the free time today to read through all the comments.

I don't think the military rocket concerns were so much about making it cheaper through quantity, but more keeping the capability domestic. The domestic businesses can't compete with the cheap overseas labor and stay solvent, and the military can't buy from overseas for security reasons. So other gov't agencies order from them to keep them in business. I visited a foundry for a manufacturing class about 6 years ago, and that was the case there.

Posted by: MoftheMountain | February 24, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

Most of the missions we have sent to Mars were not really capable of detecting life -- and that includes, ironically, Viking, which was the only mission that included "detect life" as its primary mission goal. Viking could have detected life if it were easy. But there is plenty of life on Earth that is NOT easy to detect, but nevertheless, it is there. The failure to detect life so far on Mars is not good evidence of nothing there -- we have explored a land mass equivalent to the Earth's combined continental surface area using three tiny cars and two landers, plus a passel of orbiting spacecraft. There is plenty of bacterial life on Earth that could have evaded this inspection. The deepest we have dug into the surface is a few centimeters, although we have looked into pre-existing holes in the ground that take us down by a few meters. Even there, we are looking at surfaces that have been exposed for many millions of years. Chances are, there is no surface life, but there is still reason to consider the possibility of subterranean life, probably bacterial (if it exists, of course), buried many tens or hundreds of meters and probably only in a few isolated locations. Those isolated locations happen to involve rough terrain, of the sort on which we do not land spacecraft, thus they will be explored only if we send rovers capable of long distance travel.

My reason for picking on humans for exploring Mars is not concern over our pollution of the pristine Mars environment -- I feel confident (perhaps a misplaced confidence) that Earth-derived life would die a squealing death in short order if it were exposed to the Mars surface environment. The problem is that we KNOW that we are made out of living stuff. If we create a risk of smearing our living goo on the surface, even if it dies immediately, how can we reliably distinguish Mars life (if there is any) from our own crud? We need to keep Mars crud-free until we have some confidence that we have seriously explored for life and we have found it or not found it.

Where humans become useful is for activities that require controlled application of significant power. We are smarter than current robots, and we can exercise more control than excavation methods that involve dropping heavy objects from orbit. Either we need to run a big drill or Earth-mover, or we need to make craters in order to inspect the sub-surface. We will need to pick our way through the debris of an excavation in order to see what's there, or inspect subsurface samples to look for hidden life that may rapidly degrade when exposed to surface conditions, just as Earth life would do. That's why I like telepresence -- the human brain is much better at creative navigation than any piece of autonomous software, and we can manipulate inspection systems very rapidly and effectively.

Posted by: ScienceTim | February 24, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Water, schmater.

If the 'bots were to find a nice dry full-bodied red wine to go with Moon cheese, then yer talkin'.

Posted by: MsJS | February 24, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

I find it highly likely that life on Mars - or the moon for that matter - will be of this sort:
http://www.ias.ac.in/jarch/currsci/73/00000504.pdf

deep crustal bacteria far below the surface.

While this is only exciting to a handful of people such as me, it means a lot of digging in order to find it, as it likely cannot exist except where reasonably non-corrosive water extends all the way to the surface.

And yes, this is the stuff which has developed intelligence. Vast and cool.

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 24, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Here's an article in New Scientist about this type of life possibly existing on other planets
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg15721245.000

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 24, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I agree that Sailing the Ocean of Night *is* r[R]omantic, bc. That's exactly why I'm not willing to fund it. I'm quite happy funding science, I'm happy funding education. I am *not* happy funding what basically amounts to fun, even really cool fun, and especially not somebody *else's* fun. I'm not happy funding starry-eyed Ray Bradbury/Gene Roddenberry quasi-mystical Trekism, the "boldly go where..." etc. I love Star Trek and Asimov and Ted Sturgeon and Tom Corbetyt and Flash Gordon as much as anybody -- but it is exactly that kind of thing that should NOT be influencing our policy-making and NASA exploration. If somebody wants to go and be Jim Kirk, let them do it on their own dime. If they want to a Jacques Cousteau, then we'll talk.

My heart (such as it is) is actually with all the manned mission people. But my brain tends to side with the roboticists. And given the current economy, my wallet says a pox on both your houses, at least for the next decade or two. I'm OK with a limited program, with LEO stuff, etc., and with more Hubbles. But I have no interest in keeping Boeing or Lockheed in business at taxpayer expense just to keep them in being. If they die, they die. I find the argument that if we stop, then the technology will die spurious. It won't die--it will merely go dormant. It will be stored in boxes and cartons and data disks and sit on the shelf somewhere. And if it sits for two generations before being reactivated, I'm OK with that.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for looking out for me, slyness. You're right; a desires fork can be a terrible temptation.

Posted by: Ivansmom | February 24, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Not to change the subject or anything...

A SeaWorld employee died this afternoon during an incident at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium, an Orange County Sheriff's Office official confirmed.

ttp://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/os-seaworld-orlando-shamu-injury-20100224,0,3944885.story

Posted by: rickoshea1 | February 24, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

Here is how the Martian subsurface bacteria link up and become intelligent:
http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527493.800-the-real-avatar-ocean-bacteria-act-as-superorganism.html

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 24, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Zackly, MsJS. It's all about priorities.

I don't if anyone has noticed (or cares), but until today, I've always stayed out of all the space talk over the past few years. (Now you see why.) But here's my view about the possibility that we find some sort of bacterial life form in the crust or clustered around some air vent or some such: so what. I willing concede the academic "Eureka" factor. I'm just not very excited about -- because I ALREADY believe in the probability of some sort of life forms on other planets, albeit one in a gazillion, or whatever the Drake number might be. So if we somehow find a piece of pond scum on Phoebos, my reaction is: "That's nice, and I always suspected as much. Can I go back to my Michael Connolly novel now?" Because it doesn't prove anything I don't already believe. The discovery of pond-scum-like wigglies crawling all over Planet Maximus Bellerophotus-3 just doesn't do it for me.

I have a suspicion that some day in the future we will send some manned mission to some distant planet, and discover a planet of banana slugs dumber than a "birther." And we will be really, really disappointed.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

I believe the spacenews editorial you are looking for is here.

http://www.spacenews.com/policy/100212-end-constellation-prompts-industrial-base-questions.html

Two big problems with the main arguements. The first is that the guy who doesn't want to see the man-rated solid rocket motors end, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, stands to lose 2,000 jobs in his district from ATK Launch Systems. This does not make him exactly an unbiased opinion. Do not fall into the trap of assuming he is wrong. That part comes next.

The second problem is equating the missle rockets and the shuttle rockets. I have personally seen ground tests of Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) and peacekeeper (ICBM) rocket motors. They are very different. Missles can take more Gs and sit on top of much more volitle fuel. ICBMs are designed to get up and gone as soon as possible because they are most vulnerable in boost phase. An astronaut could not survive a trip to space on that kind of rocket. The SRBs are of no use to the DoD. NASA does not fund the ICBM infrastructure. The two are separate so one can be shut down without a huge effect on the other.

A comparable analogy would be saying that GM shutting down Saab will negatively impact thier ability to make Buicks.

If taking down the Ares program would throw ATK out of business, you could make that argument of lost capability, but ATK does rockets and 80% of the ammunition for the military. They will hurt, but not go under.

Posted by: adent | February 24, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Something a friend just now e-mailed me (he's not reading the blog) re: robotics: http://www.timeincnewsgroupcustompub.com/sections/100301_DefenseTechnology.pdf

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

MsJS - I agree with you. The boodle has had this discussion many times before and I have always stressed the importance of probes.

My point is that if people really, really want to push our soft bodies into the aether, either for inspirational purposes or, as SciTim points out, to get closer to the action, then the flyby notion makes a lot of sense.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks adent, for that great post!

Posted by: RD_Padouk | February 24, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Buh-bye, Hummer. GM just killed the line.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 4:49 PM | Report abuse

Ditto praise for adent's viewpoint

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 24, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Mind-boggling WaPo "Discussions" headline: "Is Palin a hypocrite?"

Does a bear...

Is the pope...

ad infinitum.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | February 24, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

And now, for something completely different ...

NEW KIT!!!

Posted by: -ftb- | February 24, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

I feel a need--more like a duty--to call out this article and its accompanying graphic because it is *so* on-Kit. Yesterday's Kit. It's by Andrew Revkin at the NYT, headlined, "Disaster Awaits Quake-Threatened Cities in Developing World." Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey.

Caribbean/Haiti/Port-au-Prince is just one of many areas/countires/cities vulnerable in the world. Not rich, in comparison to Japan and California/Los Angeles.

Article:
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/25/science/earth/25quake.html?hp

Graphics (two, significant, so scroll down)...Where Shoddy Construction Could Mean Deaths:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/24/world/20100224-quake-map.html

Posted by: laloomis | February 24, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Why not an infinitely cooler and less expensive task for said pointy-headed nerds? Design and build a working laboratory/science station at about 15000 feet below the surface of the ocean?

One think that Mr. Zubrin should think about is something I remember from the late '80s.

Mars needs women.

Posted by: steveboyington | February 24, 2010 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Couldn't we have exquisite reproductions of valuable artworks in Washington, with the real ones squirreled away within a massive mountain at an undisclosed location?

Same for the Met in New York. And maybe the Hamptons. They might suffer a hurricane one day.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | February 24, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Finally it becomes more evident. NASA is a front for the Department of Defense, with its sole purpose to develop Death Star technology before the Russians. Imagine once we get a Death Star! Ahmedinejad would have to do what we want... or we'd blow up his planet!

Posted by: steveboyington | March 3, 2010 5:14 PM | Report abuse

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