View 711 Friday, February 03, 2012
I continue to wallow in misery, which is to say I am recovering from my cold. It’s no fun at all, but I have to say I am better today than yesterday. I’m also falling further and further behind. Alas.
In today’s Wall Street Journal:
“Back to the Moon—For a Fraction of the Old Price
Gingrich is right that America needs to retain its lead in space.” By Charles Miller. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204652904577193501932074504.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
Since the op ed article says what I have been saying since 1980, it should be no surprise that I approve. Miller says the right things for the right reasons, and agrees with Newt Gingrich that the path to space is through prizes. His article reads like a condensation of the 1988 Citizen’s Advisory Council on National Space Policy titles America A Spacefaring Nation Again. I chaired the Council. It met first in 1980 after the election of Ronald Reagan to write the Transition Team papers on Space Policy for the incoming Reagan Administration, and continued to meet until 1988. Its last act was to convince then Vice President Quayle to fund the SSX X Project as a step toward restoring America as a Spacefaring Nation. The only funding Quayle could find was in the Strategic Defense Initiative appropriations, and there wasn’t enough for the 600,000 pound (Gross Liftoff Weight) SSC, so a scale model, the DC/X, was built. The original SSX was intended to lead to a fully reusable spacecraft. I did a somewhat technical report on it which is available here. There is also a belated public Council Report on reusable spacecraft. And of course there is my report on How to Get To Space.
SSX advocates Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) as a path to reusable spacecraft. SSTO is one approach. Another is a multiple stage to orbit concept with each stage being reusable. These are technical matters, and which is best is not going to be decided by argument: we need more technical data. The major argument for SSTO is operations simplicity, and, we believed at the time, savability. The original goals of SSX were Savable, Reusable, Reliable, and then higher and faster. As Max Hunter put it, SSX at 600,000 pounds GLOW might not make orbit but it would sure scare it to death – and we’d learn from it enough to build a Savable, Reusable, Reliable spaceship that would routinely make orbit.
Multiple Stage to Orbit supporters advocate a recoverable first stage, generally a special purpose piloted airplane which takes the orbiter to very high altitudes and releases it at fairly low velocities. The advantage here is that rocket engines function better in vacuum than at sea level. To get the most out of your rocket you want a large bell, but the bell has significant drag in atmosphere. Therefore, if you take the rocket to vacuum or near vacuum you can design the rocket for much more fuel efficiency. The cost of this is the operational complexity and cost of the first stage, and the reliability cost of ignition and stage separation. These are highly technical issues, and not easily settled by argument.
The important point is that savable, reusable, and reliable space craft are needed for a true spacefaring economy. If you have to throw away the rocket each time you launch, it’s pretty hard to make a profit.
The problem here is that the initial investment in spacecraft development is fairly high. The technical risks are not all that great. Investors understand technical risk, But when that is explained the next question is always “An what’s the market?” I think I was first asked that in 1970 when I argued strongly for reusable spaceships as opposed to building more expendables. The only real answer is “Have faith. If your build it, they will come.” Now I think there are better answers than that, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that you can build reliable solar power satellites and bring that power to Earth for commercial use. There are other speculations about commercial advantages in space. I am quite certain that eventually space will make us all rich, and I’ve been saying it for a long time. See A Step Farther Out. I first met Newt Gingrich when he read that book, was impressed by it, and called my publisher (Ace Books) and bullied my phone number out of my editor (Jim Baen). The first time I ever heard from or of Newt Gingrich was when my phone rang, and he wanted to discuss the book.
A Step Farther Out was written long ago, but most of its arguments, particularly those on Survival With Style and the speculations about a spacefaring economy are still relevant. We have much better understanding of space technology now. Our engines are more efficient, material science has made structures stronger and lighter and thus improves mass fraction, and our control systems are orders of magnitude better than they were when I wrote that book. We can build reusable spacecraft, and with proper use of prizes we can provide incentives by rewarding successful research and development, thus reducing the market risk – you get a substantial sum for making the technology work – while putting the costs of technical risk outside government bureaucracy: you don’t get the money if you can’t build the ship.
Dr. Miller’s Wall Street Journal article makes many valid points. He also names some of the giants of American aviation development – Bill Boeing, Glen Martin, Donald Douglas, Jack Northrup – and some of the space pioneers. He includes Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Robert Bigelow, Burt Rutan, Paul Allen, Jeff Greason. One could add to both lists, but that’s not the point: aviation was developed by entrepreneurs. Space travel can also go that right.
There are also military reasons for America to be a spacefaring nation. One of the first lessons taught in tactics classes is “Take the high ground boy, or they’ll kick hell out of you in the valleys.” Space is the high ground, and for a high tech military such as ours, the ability to make repaid sorties into space to replace assets destroyed by an enemy is critical. If Iran gets a nuke – just one – and launches it out over the Indian Ocean to “test” it at high altitude – we won’t say how high – the results on GPS and some of our other space assets are, well, officially unpredictable. One can look up what happened after Argus to get an idea of possible effect.
Whatever else one may say about the Republican candidates, Mr. Romney seems to think Newt’s space proposals are absurd. I do not agree. Whomever we elect will have to learn about the importance of space exploration. Newt already knows.
I have a number of other notes today. I’m still in robe and pajamas and it’s lunch time. I’ll see what I can get to after lunch.
I have one observation: Romney, in his backtracking over what the media said was a faux pas in his remarks about the poor (see yesterday’s View) said that he’s in favor of automatic rises in minimum wage. This is hardly the usual conservative response. I’m sure it can be explained to him that minimum wages either have no effect at all (if they are low enough) or produce unemployment (if they require payment of wages higher than the job is worth), but you’d have thought he’d already know that. One presumes that he has never had to worry about minimum wages because he always pays people more than that, which is to his credit; but he does need to know that minimum wages destroy jobs. We can hope someone will teach him that.
Now to lunch.
The president signed off on a Health and Human Services ruling that says that under ObamaCare, Catholic institutions—including charities, hospitals and schools—will be required by law, for the first time ever, to provide and pay for insurance coverage that includes contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization procedures. If they do not, they will face ruinous fines in the millions of dollars. Or they can always go out of business.
In other words, the Catholic Church was told this week that its institutions can’t be Catholic anymore.
Some years ago the California legislature contemplated a law that would require any hospital that had a maternity ward to perform abortions on demand.
The elderly Mother Superior who ran St. Joseph’s hospital went to the legislature and said as follows:
I am as abbess of the order that own this hospital a corporation sole, and I own this hospital. If you pass this law I will send all the patients to other hospitals, discharge the staff, cancel all the insurance policies, and order the demolition of all the buildings. Thank you.
Now she was very much of the Old School, and no one doubted she meant every word of it. The law never got to the floor of the assembly. I have no idea what President Obama thinks he is doing here, but I cannot see how this will help him be reelected.
There was no reason to pick this fight. It reflects political incompetence on a scale so great as to make Mitt Romney’s gaffes a little bitty thing.
There was nothing for the president to gain, except, perhaps, the pleasure of making a great church bow to him.
Enjoy it while you can. You have awakened a sleeping giant.