Thoughts from a Grouchy Old Space Skeptic

Commentary by Michael Mackowski

I am an engineer who has observed several aerospace programs that start with great promise and offer impressive capabilities while only requiring a little bit of development. More than a few of these went down in flames. Each program progressed well past the viewgraph stage, either into detailed design, or were actually built and flown. Some I worked on personally, some I watched as an observer. All had great potential, impressive technology, and many smart backers. All failed in some way, either neglecting to develop the required technology, having a flaw in the business plan, or the government customer cancelled the program due to changing requirements. Programs I worked on include:

  • Electrophoresis Operations in Space
  • National Aerospace Plane
  • Industrial Space Facility
  • Iridium

Programs I read about, that had announced contracts or press releases with launch dates include:

  • DC-X
  • Space Adventures tourist rocket (Pacific American Launch systems)
  • Space Station Freedom
  • Hermes space plane (original French version)
  • Teledesic (internet in the sky)
  • Constellation (NASA deep space exploration)
  • Various cheap rockets (OTRAG, ROTON, Kistler, AMROC, etc.)
  • Various tourist in space scams

So after living through many of these programs, I have a hard time getting too excited by folks like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Bigelow, Mars One, Planetary Resources, etc. I’ve seen it all before. They promise a lot, and maybe the technology isn’t really that difficult. It’s usually the business plan has no foundation or they have little experience in space hardware. When reality sets in, schedules slip, and the promised performance decreases or the program disappears completely. Maybe all of these efforts will be successful, but history tells us to be skeptical.

My patience is wearing thin with all the dreamy-eyed space cadets who worship anything SpaceX does and think we are ready to send people to Mars next week. Sending humans into space is not a trivial endeavor, nor is developing reusable rocket boosters. Space technology involves high energy devices that must operate with great precision and high reliability. This certainly can be done at a lower cost than we are doing it today, but I do not believe it will ever be “cheap”. The physics simply do not allow it.

Now SpaceX has a nice rocketry program, but it took them four tries to get to orbit successfully. I’m happy Elon Musk wants to get people to Mars but it is so very difficult, that I cannot get my hopes up for much progress except in the far term (think decades). I’m also excited to see him spend his own money to develop reusable rockets, but just because one of his tests achieves some success doesn’t mean we can now afford to start launching solar power satellites. The hype from jumping ahead so many steps is painful to watch.

Look how long it took to get a space station. I have been thinning my old files and news clippings and I found space station concepts with a long truss and a cupola from 1981, over thirty years ago. The program was nearly cancelled in 1992. Final assembly was eventually completed in 2010. That is thirty years from concept to reality. And a space station is relatively simple compared to a lunar base or sending a crew to Mars.

There was a news item in January of this year where Jeff Foust (of the NewSpace Journal) noted that Virgin Galactic and XCOR failed to meet test flights milestones they had announced a year earlier. Recall that Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 with a pair of suborbital flights to the edge of space. Excitement was high for a larger version that could take thrill seekers on commercial flights. In 2008 Richard Branson predicted the first commercial flight would be within 18 months. In 2009, a Virgin Galactic spokesman said the schedule would be driven by safety factors, but revenue flights could be expected in two years. It’s now five years later and they have yet to pull off even a demo of the full mission.

If developing a suborbital manned vehicle is this difficult, consider how much more difficult it will be to develop large transport spaceships to take crew and supplies to a lunar base or Mars outpost. I don’t care if it is a government program or a bunch of rich entrepreneurs, they all have to solve engineering problems and obey the laws of physics, and that is not a trivial task.

I’ve been seeing posts on-line about the Mars One foundation that wants to start a colony there by 2023. A lot of people believe this will actually happen. I see naïve debates about what kind of laptop they should bring along. Right now the closest thing to a manned interplanetary vehicle is NASA’s Orion, and it won’t fly with a crew until 2021 or so. Elon Musk has dreams about a Mars colonial ship. I like his ambition but all he has are viewgraphs. The same goes for any sort of planetary surface lander that can put people on Mars or even the Moon. With unlimited resources you might be able to develop that in ten years. Does anyone believe Mars One has those resources?

As a space advocate, bringing peoples’ visions “down to Earth” is perhaps the antithesis of what I normally try to do. But because of my own experience over the years, I don’t want to see peoples’ dreams “crash and burn” either. There is nothing wrong with promoting an exciting future in space, but we have to be realistic, and lately I’m seeing a lot unrealistic expectations out there.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts from a Grouchy Old Space Skeptic

  1. I agree with you Mike and have got discouraged myself however as someone who has always been interested in space exploration and seeing it as the height of our technology and science advancement I still dream on within realistic expectations. I too have seen some dysfunctional things in the aerospace field. No time to go into here. Some of it the corporation, some the government, sometimes it is the people involved. If we could only get it together here on earth more, less fighting, less war, more control of ourselves in general, of our overpopulation, our enviromental problems. Massive worldwide education is needed, beyond what our present educational systems can do, or any of our “systems” can presently do. Truth is we need to create new systems. If we could free ourselves to focus more of our energies on space exploration & colonization we could accomplish so much more.Thomas Jefferson concluding arrangements of the Louisiana purchase from France in 1803 thought that the land might be settled by 2600 A.D. In 1903 technological experts believe that the flying machine was for ever and a impossible device. In 1930 educated scientist predict the control nuclear reaction and landing on the moon would never be reached before the year 2000 A.D.. We are what we think we are, yet often we are more than what we think we are. It is not always easy to predict the future. Neccesity is at times the mother of invention. People are often unpredictable & it is people that do & can create the future. Awareness & knowledge is key. Life is short for humans, for now anyway, do what you can & enjoy the ride.

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