Space

The other day David posted a video of Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson has become a passionate and outspoken advocate for NASA and continued space exploration. His distinct voice, his intellect and, I daresay, his race, have made him extremely popular on the speaking circuit. Someone put together a video that collects many of his quotes and it is a powerful piece. See below:

I am not a scientist, but as a child I had an immense interest in science, especially exploration. I had a book that talked about underwater exploration and imagined whole communities under our oceans. I liked to read about polar explorers. Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark and Jedediah Smith were early heroes. I was smitten with explorer-archaeologists and only learned this was an extinct breed when I became an archaeologist myself.  And of course there was space. I spent hours pouring over my grandparents collection of National Geographic magazines and following the space program. I never thought the United States would reach such a low point in our plans for future discovery.

Some important points that Tyson makes:

  • “NASA’s entire budget is 4/10 of one penny on a tax dollar.”
  • “The $850 bank bailout…is greater than the entire 50-year running budget of NASA.”
  • “You are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow.”

Investment in space is not just about dreams – it drives real innovation. That alone makes the investment worth it. Additionally it inspires future scientists and this is perhaps the greatest payoff.

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90 thoughts on “Space

  1. I love Neil, but I think he suffers from the same ideological blinders that people as immersed in and passionate about their field tend towards, as evidenced by statements like this: “You are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow.”  Really?  The ONLY thing?  In the same way that I tend to advocate education as the solution to all life’s problems (I probably am as passionate about education as Neil is about space, though will not pretend to have his expertise on the matter), he points towards space exploration as the cure for what ails ya.

    Taking even one step back, to recognizing space exploration as scratching the natural human itch to explore and conquer and seek answers would make his message not only more widespread and applicable, but would make him harder to dismiss him as being a bit too out there.  My wife, who is similarly intrigued by him, can’t help but refer to him as, “That really smart, really nice* guy who cares a little bit too much about space.”

    * Her perception of his ‘niceness’ is the fact that he appeared on an episode of Bill Maher’s (BOOHISS) show and managed to never raise his voice.  The bar is set low with this one.  At least for those in the public arena.

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  2. Investment in space is not just about dreams – it drives real innovation. That alone makes the investment worth it.

    My initial reaction is that this is right. I wonder if there’s any data to back it up, ie., what return in federal revenue is realized by the initial investment in research ???

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    • My initial reaction is that it’s almost certainly wrong. I mean, sure, worth it in the sense that it’s a better return on our money than paying people to dig holes and fill them in again (on the other hand, think what all that exercise would do for health care costs!), but not compared to spending that money on R&D targeted towards more practical ends.

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      • You’re both right.

        The thing about R&D is that you have two types: research and development into fairly well known spaces, and research and development into fairly unknown spaces.

        The first produces the most real gains: you go from having a clunky first generation steam engine that is very inefficient to one that has better valves and gaskets and a safer pressure chamber and a number of other innovations  that turn it from a 2-person work engine into a 2000-person work engine.

        But the second has a tendency to deliver up stuff that we didn’t know we could use in different ways, much earlier than the first does.  It’s much less bounded by goals, so things come into being that are big game changers – you invent something or discover something – sometimes when you’re trying to solve a problem that has nothing to do with how the thing will actually be used – and someone looks at that thing and says, “Holy shit!  You could use this to (blah)”.

        We have the microprocessor because of the space program.  We eventually would have gotten around to having a microprocessor anyway.  But really, I’m glad we have the technology we have now in 2011 and not the technology we would have had now without the space program… which would probably be somewhere around 1993 computer technology.

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        • Yeah, but stuff like this can come from anywhere, right? There’s no reason, a priori, to expect the space program to give a better spin-off yield than research into some other field, especially since we’ve already been doing the space thing for sixty years and picked the low-hanging fruit. So why not direct that money into some other field of inquiry that’s just as likely to produce useful spin-offs, and will also lead towards the solution of real problems?

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          • Such as?

            Look, if you’re choosing between “NASA” and “NIH” or “NSF”, yes, I’d give more money to NIH or NSF.  We have lots of unemployed PhDs that could use grant money.

            But given a choice in the context of the greater federal budget, I’m pretty sure you can find a way to increase both, if you believe in the idea of spending federal money on anything, really.

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          • Its true-ish that any field can make great leaps forward in technology, but you cant find a better tech-nursery than the space exploration business. The idea is that if you want to build a ship that will orbit the Earth at an altitude free from space-junk and other satellites and then keep it at that altitude as opposed to having it crash into earth, and then you want to send people up to it to run experiments and then get those people back aboard a reusable space craft, well you’ve got to prepare for some very very extreme conditions. You’ll need better materials to build out of, because the initial thrust needed places huge amounts of stress on the entire vessel. You’ll need to make it lighter than the average bear if you want to save cash on fuel, which we do. Right there, we haven’t even left the atmosphere and we’re already designing ultra-light and super-strong materials that could benefit car and plane manufacturers in major ways to help make their products safer and more efficient. Now we’re in space, and we’re gunna need something real powerful to calculate where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there without missing and going off into deep space while not crashing into the space station or moon or planet. Enter computers, which were vacuum tubes not so long ago, but now we’ve got to make them small and light enough to fit on a shuttle and powerful enough to not kill everyone. Not to mention the aid to foreign affairs by having the Ruskies and the Brits and the Americans all working towards a common goal of advancing mankind’s understanding of our place in the universe. Speaking of mankind, its a real benefit for young ladies to have female role models making huge advancements in highly publicized scientific fields. And it is hard to sensationalize biology or chemistry without scaring everyone, so lets sensationalize women in space and inspire a new generation of girls to enter into the mathematical and scientific professions that are currently boys only, no girls allowed. We haven’t even begun to talk about the theories that were proven in space, like Einstein’s theories regarding gravity and its impact on the fabric of space-time, proven with gyroscopes orbiting earth. Or our understanding of where our sun and neighbors and our own planet came from by analyzing stars and other solar systems via Hubble and Kepler telescopes. And I really cannot stress enough how far the space program has advanced our understanding of materials science and our ability to apply those theories to construct better everything more efficiently. And its really nice in general to have scientific advancement come from a field other than the military, where it usually comes from. And its been an UNDERFUNDED agency that has accomplished all this. Imagine what innovations would arise from a sufficiently funded NASA…..the mind boggles at the possibilities.

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    • But the returns are not coming in the areas that make the dream more than government dabbling (okay, that’s somewhat an overstatement, but not by a lot).  For the dream to move forward, we need the ability to lift big payloads to LEO cheaply; the dream has always needed a cheap way to LEO.  They retired the Saturn V in 1973, and haven’t matched its lifting capacity in the almost 40 years since.

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  3. “His distinct voice, his intellect and, I daresay, his race, have made him extremely popular on the speaking circuit.”

    I think there is more to his popularity than this, by the way.  Neil speaks with such passion, such love for his topic, that you can’t help but be engaged.  You can tell that he REALLY cares about what he’s talking about, in a way that is increasingly rare among folks in the public eye.

    Romney could learn a thing or two million from him.

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    • BSK,

      I would surmise that it’s that passion that leads him to be a bit too much out there. Which is odd, because if so it means you’re both critiquing and admiring him for the same trait.  That’s not necessarily bad, though, and I don’t mean that as a critique, but an observation.  It says something about the nature of passion. At least that semi-contradictory response to that type of passion is one that I often have.

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  4. I’ve got plenty of things to dream about that don’t involve space (curing diseases, ending hunger, reducing poverty, preserving the wonder and beauty of places still existing here on earth, finding a way to clone wooly mammoths…).  The truth is that nothing all that interesting has happened in terms of space exploration since the moon landings.

    If something has to take budget cuts, I’d rather it be NASA rather than a program that directly improves people’s lives and meet their needs.

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    • With all due respect, you’re completely off-base on this one.  Just a few months ago, scientists discovered a planet orbiting another star that’s in the habitable zone (and they’re finding tons of exoplanets now, and even determining the composition of their atmospheres).  This is the biggest step we’ve ever taken towards perhaps discovering life on another world, which would be one of the biggest discoveries EVER.  Even if we never get there, knowing we’re not alone–even if the company is only bacteria–would be of huge import.  It’s easily worth more investment (to say nothing of protecting earth from possible disasters, etc etc).

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        • You can make that argument about lots of “all that money”.

          Note: I’m more or less convinced that Jason’s correct, below.  The technical difficulties in generating a close-enough-to-Earth environment for humans to inhabit for extended periods while not on a planetary body make manned exploration very much more costly than unmanned exploration.

          On the other hand, cryonics or something like it would open up a realm of possibilities not just for manned space travel but also extending humans down here on terra firma.

          In fact, the more we learn about attempting to replicate Earth environment in a microcosm, the more likely it is that we’ll gain some major insights into the current Earth environment in its macro existence, too… so manned exploration will likely have payoffs that increasing unmanned exploration will not (and precisely in the problem space you’re talking about, Brandon).

          All that said, “people elsewhere other than Earth” on a continuing basis is going to likely require monkeying with their genes, in the long run.

          I don’t have a good game theoretic model here because all the expenses and possible payoffs are very difficult to reasonably put into a structured analysis.  The decision about where to spend this money comes down to a matter of faith, really.  That said, it’s not a bad bet in the greater context of “all the money that is spent.”  It’s a very small bet on a very long time window that has very large possible payoffs.

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    • I didn’t watch this video but, based on his other discussions on NASA, I agree.

      I’m kind of a space nut.  Every night, I go out and look up at the stars.  I get excited over articles on space that noone else that I know seems to care about.  When I read the back of the rulebook for Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and got to the section where he talks about the (then new) ISS and the need to keep our eyes focused on the heavens instead of at our feet, I was one of those people who were saying “You are so right, Sid.”  I still split my screentime between SETI and Rosetta Stone (Medical Research, not the language learner.)

      But…….

      I reluctantly agreed with this administration that there comes a time when you have to take care of the here and now before you get back to reaching for the stars.  Right now, this we have more pressing concerns than NASA.  The whole space privitization notion and buying rides off the Russian space program may be a little bit unsavory but, until we can put our own house in order, that’s the way it has to be.

      Before dreaming about tomorrow, you have to take care of today or there will be no tomorrow.

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  5. he is both super nice and engaging and all that – everything an advocate should be – but he oversells his hand just a bit. slide back to the caves? really?

    what i’ve always found interesting is that many of my fellow minarchists, who tended to look upon many a government project with a truly jaundiced and sharp eye, maintain a crush on nasa that i’ve never adequately been able to understand or explain.

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  6. I may be married to a NASA engineer, but I agree that this stuff is ridiculously oversold.  “Crawl back to the caves”?  Please.

    Whether public or private, manned spaceflight will always be vastly more expensive, mission for mission, than  unmanned exploration.  It brings back less useful science, and it has fewer commercial applications. The costs of failure are higher, and investors are a whole lot more skittish.

    Human beings won’t really belong in space until we genetically engineer ourselves to belong there.  In the meantime, let the machines do it.

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    • Not to mention that NASA actually hasn’t done any manned space exploration since Apollo.  Flying to and from LEO is not exploration.

      That I think is why NASA has lost the public imagination.  Their manned work went from breaking new ground in Apollo to becoming a glorified courier and taxi service.  Unmanned missions are more efficient – manned missions should be kept for inspiration stuff, and there was nothing inspirational about the space shuttle programme.

      If NASA wants to recapture the public imagination, they should build a space elevator.  It might be a decades-long project but the research would likely generate many new technologies, and it would make further space exploration (as well as simply putting stuff in orbit) much easier.

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      • Don’t know if your aware, but the manned/unmanned debate in NASA goes back to its very beginning.  They well understood early on that unmanned was more cost-effective, but the need to build public support through the romance of manned flight won out.

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          • Heh.   Real simple wind tunnel experiment, like the Wright brothers used to learn how to make an aircraft wing.

            Take a rope.   Doesn’t matter what sort of rope.   Hang it up ten meters of it in the wind tunnel.   Turn the knob up to 100 kph.   Solve for keeping that rope vertical.   Once you have, you’ve got your Sky Elevator.

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            • My intuition wants to agree, but lots of people seem to think the problems can be overcome.  I’m an agnostic, as it doesn’t seem worth the time to come to a firmer conclusion.  No one’s building one anytime soon.

               

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                • This is an orbital mechanics problem, not aerodynamics (& yes, I do know what the wind speeds are in the stratosphere, that isn’t just a clever moniker I use, I actually do this crap for a living).  The forces that a a space elevator would have to endure would snicker mockingly at the energy something as pedestrian as weather could employ.  Something along the lines of you getting hit by a humming bird moving at full speed.  You’d feel it, but it be no big thing.

                  As for the equations, I give you the Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator

                  Note the distance from earth to the end of the cable (not the midpoint station, but the counterweight end).  If you wanted to do an aerodynamic simulation on this, you’d go into the test section of your wind tunnel, clamp a cable to the top & bottom of the of the test section, tighten it to, oh, I don’t know, 80% of max, then run your tunnel at 100 mph.

                  It’ll hum a nice tune

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                    • Blaise,

                      Take a look at my explanation below (maybe I did add value after all). You’re absolutely correct that air movement will have to be taken into account, but it won’t be of primary importance. In addition to what I’ve got below, the troposphere (the first 75% of the mass of atmosphere) at the equator is about 17 km thick. This won’t be enough to have any dynamic effects (i.e. amplification of vibrations a la Tacoma Narrows Bridge) on the thousands of km of length of the entire tether.

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                    • Yanno, if this stupid comment box would let me add some equations, I could demonstrate what I’m talking about.   I repeat myself, the wind tunnel is an entirely valid proposition, even if you just put a hair dryer over the first few inches of  a suspended thread.  Wave propagation along that line will generate enormous forces, it’s a common enough problem putting down offshore drill rig piping.   Just applying coriolis force would give any engineer pause, thinking about how to keep that line vertical.

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                    • Boegiboe is right.  We did a space elevator analysis in my orbital mechanics class as an undergrad.  The aerodynamic forces on a space cable would be very impressive, and would have to be factored in, but they would almost be a rounding error in comparison to the forces the structure must be designed to withstand just to be able to exist in the first place.

                      Remember, it doesn’t have to withstand the impact of winds of 100+ mph, it must be able to withstand the force of impact from space junk/rocks/ice moving at tens of thousands of miles an hour.  Yes, if such a structure was in place, all the orbital paths it passes through would have to be cleared, but that would not guarantee something wouldn’t later hit it, and it would have to withstand 99.999% of all the possible crap that could conceivably hit it, because if that cable snapped, the folks on the station or in the elevators would not be the only ones to die.

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                • The following has nothing to do with my job: I had to study it back in school.

                  A space elevator–a structure tethered to the ground by a shaft or cable of some kind–would need to be located in a geostationary location. That is, it would need to be in a circular orbit with a period equal to the ~24 hours of Earth’s rotation.

                  There are many, many geostationary/geosynchronous satellites in orbit at an altitude of close to 36,000 km. If a satellite is in circular orbit at a lower altitude, it must move more quickly, and so have a shorter orbit period, so that its centripetal acceleration matches the increased acceleration of gravity at the lower altitude. Likewise, satellites above geostationary orbit (GEO) have longer periods.

                  So, can we put a large structure in GEO and just tether it to the ground? Well, no, that won’t work. The tether would need to be geostationary, too, but all of its length would be below GEO, and therefore wouldn’t be orbiting quickly enough to avoid being pulled to the ground. That unopposed acceleration would become an additional force on the structure that would pull it out of orbit. Instead, the space elevator needs to be thought of not as orbiting, but as being flung, as though you were holding a yo-yo out at the end of its string and slinging it around in a circle. The structure, acting as a weight much more heavy than the tether, would need to be well above GEO. The tether would carry a very high tension throughout its length, more like a guy wire than a tether, really.

                  The stiffness granted by that tension would probably resist being pushed around by winds. Also, the tension would be highest near the ground, so the base would be extremely thick. My guess would be the tether structure would be the most stiff large structure mankind will have ever built.

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    • “Human beings won’t really belong in space until we genetically engineer ourselves to belong there.  In the meantime, let the machines do it.”

      I generally agree, and I most certainly agree that this is the case now. However, through technology, we can now live comfortably in places like the United Arab Emirates, Los Angeles, Fairbanks, and Singapore. Could the same not be true for the Moon, Mars, or Ganymede?

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    • I think your right humans are far to fragile to travel far in space. If you take how far machines have come, what could a human on mars do that a machine could not, since the human will be exploring the surface in a can, with no direct exposure to the surface. If you think about it a machine needs only electricity to work, where a human needs water and food and a place to dispose of wastes. It is interesting that except for stunts underwater work in deep water has moved to ROV (remotely operated vehicles).  Lets give up on the manned dream, and just send machines.

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  7. I could see NASA in the game of being an organization that guides/manages space research & exploration, but leave the R&D to start-ups.

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    • R&D for what? “start-ups” — like any other for-profit company — R&D with a focus. They’re after something specific, either to meet a contract goal or to sell to the general public. They want to make [i]money[/i].

      Private companies don’t do “blue sky” for a good reason. There’s a reason government stays involved in front-line, non-profit research (universities and such) — because private companies don’t want to risk the money pushing boundaries. Too expensive and too likely to fail.

      Back to NASA — actually a giant chunk of NASA’s miniscule budget doesn’t even really end up with  NASA — it’s flow through to various DOE initiatives and whatnot. Projects classified under NASA’s budget that are military, DOE, or other governmental department stuff.

      Sadly, NASA’s real blue-sky budgets have taken a serious whacking in the last decade or three. Thankfully grants and funding for that sort of research have popped up through other parts of the government, but it’s still been a blow.

      In the end, mankind actually needs that sort of blue sky work to progress. Its just way too much of it is too expensive for anyone but big business or government to afford, and big business won’t take the risks.

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        • And a unique business model — guaranteed monopoly in their service area, but never ever allowed to go into a line of business outside of telecommunications.  That pretty much guaranteed the revenue stream — many years ago, when I went to work at Bell Labs a few years before the Bell System was broken up, it was sometimes remarked upon that the operating telephone companies charged every customer something under a dime per month to cover the cost of the Labs, in good times and bad.  The business model was particularly important — AT&T couldn’t make money from transistor radios or laser eye surgery or desktop operating systems, so they could give away the transistor and the laser and early UNIX, to the betterment of lots of people.

          People underestimate how important that business arrangement was.  I think it was here at the League that someone pointed out, within the last several weeks, that the transistor would probably have been developed by other parties within a few years if Bell Labs hadn’t done so — it was an idea whose time had come and there was a lot of semiconductor work going on.  But the fact that the fundamental patents were held by a company that couldn’t make money from the invention outside of telecommunications made an enormous difference in getting transistors into the hands of people who could use them for other things.  Post-breakup, the situation changed.  Arguably, Linux exists today because the post-breakup AT&T kept Berkeley UNIX tied up in court for several years at the critical time when 32-bit microprocessors hit the market.

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      • Strange, when I worked at Boeing, we did tons of pure research.  Granted it was focused on our products, but it was still done.

        Companies like Scaled Composites, XCOR, etc do lots of space research.  Right now it’s focused on how to get us up there cheaply (something NASA could not do, but that is essential if we want to explore space; $10K per lbs of payload is too expensive).  Once we’ve conquered that bugbear, then we can focus on other research.

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  8. I don’t have a problem with spending the money on space, per se, but I question the bureaucratic inertia that has accrued in a 50 year + government agency.  I do not buy into the “lazy government worker” myth:  I am sure most people at NASA are highly intelligent and motivated.  However, I suspect (having previously worked for a large, scientific federal agency) that NASA, as organization, is composed of many offices, branches, divisions, etc. who are organizationally committed to their own turf/survival.  And that truly original ideas or R&D are difficult to push through the organization, either from the top or the bottom.  (Jason K – I would be interested to hear you or your spouse’s thoughts on this since you are closer to the organization)

    I think X-prize type competitions funded through the feds may be a better way to go.  Or even (and this is politically probably impossible) gut NASA and start a new agency from the bottom up with one defined goal.  Man on Mars?  Permanent Lunar Station?  (Get out of my head Newt!!!)  etc.

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