Archive for the ‘International Space Station’ Category

What is this thing and why is it here?

Cooling pump problems have served to bring the space station, a $100 billion space effort, into the public’s view once again.  Danger and failure often seem to have that effect.

Why do we have a space station? I keep forgetting.  Maybe through some sort of Freudian stream of consciousness posting I can figure things out.  Or not.

The space station is like the proverbial self-licking ice cream cone.  The point of an ice cream cone is, of course, to eat and enjoy it.  One that licks itself defeats the whole purpose of its existence.

The space station strikes me in a rather similar way.  It exists to support manned space flight.  Why does manned space flight exist?  To support the space station.  Such circular logic fails to amuse.

The space station is not to be enjoyed like the ice cream cone, but rather to fulfill a purpose.  And that purpose is…what?

Some say it is to explore space, but it seems that the space station’s low earth orbit has been pretty well explored.  Another reason might be to sustain manned space flight “momentum,” however what momentum is needed to explore something that is already fully explored and that we’re getting little or no return from?

Others can claim the space station is an important laboratory.  OK, a lab that studies what, for what purpose, and has yielded (or will yield) what results? How about we view the space station as an effort of successful international cooperation in space?  Interesting, but don’t we cooperate for a purpose?  A reason?  To fulfill a need we can’t meet on our own?  And that need would be…what?

If the purpose of the space station is to support man’s exploration of space it is falling woefully short.  If its purpose is to sustain the space industrial base, that’s simply a white-collar jobs program.

Beyond the self-licking ice cream cone, the space station is analogous to a runner who has a goal of finishing a marathon but only runs a mile a day. While the mile a day regiment may be of some health benefit, it will never support the effort needed to meet the goal of running a marathon.

If the intent of manned space is to explore the cosmos, let’s start taking action that will lead in that direction, to include lunar missions, lunar stations, and when that’s been done, missions to Mars, asteroids, and beyond.  And why explore at all?  To satisfy our curiosity, our need to explore, our need to achieve, and our need to find resources–energy and materials–that are beyond what we have here on earth.

What we’re doing with the space station–both today and in the future–won’t support those sort of ambitious goals.

The things we do to put people on orbit.

You’re in trouble!

Andy Pasztor of the WSJ reports the administration is “leaning towards outsourcing major components of its space program.” This would mean some competition (or even cancellation!) for the planned NASA-sponsored Ares programs which (in six to eight years) will be used to resupply the International Space Station with materials and astronauts. To paraphrase Emil Faber, “Competition is good.”

The Air Force would like the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle to get man-rated. That would allow them to have some of the cost-burden of that program, which was supposed to provide cost savings of at least 25 percent on USAF launches (cue Bob Euker sound-bite: “Just a bit outside”) to other users. Likewise, commercial providers like Orbital Sciences, and SpaceX will be in the mix, too. However, don’t expect the Ares programs to go down without a fight.

Also, while the President “has confirmed his commitment to human space exploration,” the next part of the challenge will be to understand exactly what the President means by ‘human space exploration.’

We are already at the point where human space exploration–currently defined by orbiting the earth in the ISS–fails to satisfy. One manned trip to the Moon may satisfy for a short while, but after that…

“Manned space” needs to provide a vision of space travel that is not completely disconnected with reality. Space tourism may be the start. Perhaps the lessons learned in space tourism and the technologies developed in that aspect of the space economy will be applied to the space domain in general. I think it is space’s best hope.