Space Hype

It’s been a while since I posted a commentary, so here we go.

I love space exploration. I follow the topic by reading books and news articles, I build space models as a hobby, I love to talk about it to groups, and I have been fortunate enough to have a job in the space industry. Sometimes I read articles that take things a bit too far. Lately there has been a lot of “hype” floating around social media sites and news articles. I see many examples of space developments being over-sold and over-promised. As I have been following this topic for over five decades, I have seen bad things happen when space programs are hyped excessively. Here are some examples of the current problem.

Space Tourism

It’s ten years after SpaceShipOne flew and won the prize for a reusable space vehicle. But it’s still going to be many years until we will have real commercial suborbital tourist space flights. Despite the marketing material I see from Virgin Galactic, this program is not going to put hundreds of people into space. It’s joy rides to “space” altitude but a long, long way from lowering the cost to orbit.

Dusting off Old Russian Equipment

The Excalibur Almaz venture is back in the news with another shady offer to send tourists around the Moon. I saw a news item about Art Dula being involved in a lawsuit related to this program. Ever since I heard of him back in the 1980s I was always suspicious of whatever he was trying to pull off. Nothing solid ever came from a commercial program using old Soviet hardware but the idea just won’t go away.

Mars and a Comet

Wow! A comet was going to fly really close to Mars and our robots are going to have an awesome view. Well the photos came in and some show this tiny little fuzzy thing. It was hardly spectacular. Folks need to remember comets way out at Mars aren’t generally very active.

We landed on a Comet!

The first announcements of the Philae landing saw a lot of over reaction, largely because ESA didn’t have or wasn’t releasing all the data that was coming in. The fact that they announced “landing” when the initial contact was made, but in reality it had bounced and landed again TWO HOURS LATER was not announced or maybe just not understood. Everybody was congratulating themselves before all the facts were in, probably while the lander was still bouncing around. Real life science isn’t like the movies. The mission so far has been a great success, despite the bouncy landing into a dark corner of the comet. My point is that there was an excess of excitement about a mission before all the facts were known.

SpaceX

Not so long ago, folks were predicting the first launch of a Falcon Heavy late in 2013 or maybe early 2014, based on statements from SpaceX. Now, reports are that the first such launch won’t occur until late in 2015 at the earliest. This is why studying history is important. People should not buy into launch predictions for ANYONE’s first launch, be it private (Falcon Heavy) or government (SLS). It never happens on time when the prediction is more than six months out. Additionally, SpaceX recently (late December 2014) removed some of the date info from their published launch manifest. The hype was that they predicted over a dozen launches in each of 2014 and 2015. That is very unlikely to happen.

Google Lunar X-Prize

I love the idea of prizes to spur space development, which is a great way to get small companies involved. But I heard way too much hype about how all these little start-ups are going to do things NASA can’t or won’t. I wish they would all be successful, but this X-prize effort has been delayed over and over again. Landing on the Moon isn’t easy and people need to remember that. From a news report:

Meanwhile, “in an expected announcement,” officials with the competition announced that the deadline to win the grand prize has been pushed back one year to Dec. 31, 2016. XPRIZE Vice Chairman and President Robert K. Weiss said that the deadline was pushed back for a third time because the group recognizes that the task is “extremely difficult and unprecedented, not only from a technological standpoint, but also in terms of financial considerations.”

Cost Predictions

A news item reported that Elon Musk of SpaceX claims their reusable rockets will reduce launch costs “to a hundredth of what they are now.” Wow. A factor of one hundred implies you re-use the same booster at least 100 times. This also ignores the costs to refurbish the rocket, or to run the tests to verify nothing broke. That is a lot of re-use for a rocket booster seeing the extreme dynamic loads of launch and landing. Even Space Shuttle orbiters never got to 100 flights. So “100X” is just hype.

The Role of Chapters and Grass Roots Space Advocacy

Commentary by Mike Mackowski, 10/25/13

I’ve been a little quiet recently on this blog. There has been activity in the way of space news (the successful Antares/Cygnus flight to ISS, an upgraded Falcon 9 launch, the successful LADEE lasercom experiment, etc.) but nothing that inspired me to write any new commentary.

I’ve been busy with a number of activities involving outreach to schools and related STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) projects. In fact, I could use some additional volunteers to meet the various requests we get for mentors and speakers. There are several K-12 schools looking for help, so contact me if you are interested. Coming up in early November is the SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space – sort of a campus-based version of NSS) annual SpaceVision conference which will be held at ASU in Tempe.

The NSS leadership recently held their board of directors meeting, which triggered some discussions among chapter leaders across the country. The issue was the relative balance (within NSS) between chapter activities and broader national-level efforts. From my perspective, and my long history with this organization, you really need both. The national organization provides a highly visible public image and a voice in Washington, DC, while local chapters provide a venue for personal involvement and opportunities for grass roots activism.

Focusing on local activities, and considering that most space policy decisions are made in Washington, what is the role of chapters in an organization like NSS? Consider the list of “E”s below.

Energize Membership
• A compelling local group can motivate members to stay involved, renew their membership, and recruit new members. If a chapter can grow and have a larger active membership base, they can take on more projects.

Educate members about what is going on in the space business
• You can get info on line but you usually have to look for it.
• Info acquired via an in-person presentation is often serendipitous and surprising. You could learn something you never expected. You could find something you weren’t looking for. You get to have a personal exchange with the presenter. It is much harder to do that on the internet.

Entertainment
• There is a social aspect to any avocational pursuit. Space exploration is no different. Having a local chapter with interesting activities builds membership by keeping people involved, having fun, coming back, and encouraging new members.

Engaging Others
• The general public is under-educated about technology in general and space in particular. Most folks think the US has no space program. A chapter can perform public outreach and serve as a source of information for local media. This also creates opportunities to enhance membership.

What this says to me is that being an effective space advocate is a lot more fun when you are doing it in concert with other like minded people. Being active in a chapter is a great way to make that happen, so please get involved and visit a chapter meeting or say hi on this blog or our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/Moonsociety/).

September Meeting: The Road to Mars

The long-term goal for the majority of space enthusiasts is to get people to Mars. Advocates acknowledge this is an ambitious goal that will be expensive and not without risk. Over the past few years several very different proposals on how to get there have been offered. At this month’s meeting Mike Mackowski will review these various options and discuss their pros and cons. Mike is president of the Phoenix Chapter of NSS, an aerospace engineer, and a long time space advocate. The audience will be invited to offer their views on the pathways to Mars and we hope this can be a fun and interactive discussion.

The presentation will not just consider how to get to Mars but why. Space advocates often run into the same questions about why we should send people into space at all. Many reasons have been offered (international prestige, inspiration, exploration, commercial development, settlement, etc.) but which one will be the driver that final puts footprints in the Martian dirt? How can we make it permanent and not just “flags and footprints”? What will be the relative roles of government and private entities?

There has also been a lot of debate recently on what should be the next “destination”. Do we need to stop at the Moon first? Can asteroids be a practice run before attempting the deep space mission to the Red Planet? Can we use resources from the Moon or an asteroid to reduce the cost of the mission? to go next (Moon, Mars, asteroids) has heated up and is even dividing the pro-space community. So I collected my notes and reviewed some news articles and commentaries and came up with the chart you see here.

Mars2

Please plan to join us at this meeting. Mike will offer his views on the subject and is looking forward to getting inputs from other people excited about the prospects of manned space exploration.