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Is NASA On Life Support?


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In reply to an earlier post on Jan 15, 2010 6:06:49 PM PST
Ronald Craig says:
Details, details, who has time for details these days! It's a full-time job just finding things to link to here! :P

Posted on Jan 15, 2010 6:41:21 PM PST
timetobuy says:
The only way space will be explored is to have it done by private companies for profit. Space exploration using tax payer money is just too political. You know that the only way we got the shuttle was Rockwell lied about launch cost and performance to congress. Also since mid 1980's there were white papers for shuttle replacements design but no money was made available. There were proposals for manned mars flights back in the 60's but again no money. The real cost for a shuttle replacement will be 30-50 billion. The key to spaceflight is a new propulsion system. We have out grown the present Hydrogen and LOX systems. Shuttle died with the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Everyone and their brother ran from shuttle after this accident. The bottom line is there is no money to fund the shuttle replacement properly.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 15, 2010 6:46:31 PM PST
timetobuy says:
You forgot one other little detail. The government loves to change specs in the middle of a contract. The government also wants a Cadillac system where a VW will do the job.

Posted on Jan 15, 2010 8:54:46 PM PST
Hi timetobuy,

I'm not sure if private companies will have such an easy time of it. The USA is part of the 1967 "Outer Space Treaty" (See http://history.nasa.gov/1967treaty.html). Between Article II and VI of the treaty, it is not clear how much free reign private companies will have. If someone lands at the Moon's south pole and takes over all the water there, you'll hear howls across the globe.

Already, geosynchronous orbit slots get regulated by a UN committee so that the limited number of slots don't get hogged by one nation. I wouldn't doubt that a UN committee will be set up for space resources if and when commercial activities start.

At least we didn't sign the 1979 "Moon Treaty". That one would really have put the kibosh on any private use of space. It bans all "exploration and uses of celestial bodies without the approval or benefit of other states under the common heritage of mankind principle (article 11)".

I always felt like we should allocate some portion as 'free use'. If we stated tomorrow "1/4 of the Moon is up for grabs, as well as 1/4 of Mars if you can get there and stay for a year" you would see something that would rival the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. I can see it now, the Mars Rush of 2089!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2010 8:30:42 AM PST
Hi Timetobuy!

In the Space Opera forum, I try to post any new information on spaceflight propulsion systems (whether real, in R&D, or only still theory) in the discussion "Craft Propulsion in Space Opera". With all the ideas out there, you'd think NASA could find SOMETHING better to rely on than plutonium and solar power for deep space projects!

Posted on Jan 16, 2010 8:48:00 AM PST
The point of my running-out-of-plutonium post, is that NASA has a hard time seeing beyond the horizon. They had an active "new shuttle" project going for a decade that gobbled up money and time, and ended up with ... nada. They knew the U.S. had stopped producing plutonium. But instead of putting serious R&D money into a new propulsion system, as timetobuy suggested, they just created a "timetable" for when the U.S. plutonium would be gone. This is look-to-the-past thinking being practiced by the one government entity that should be focused on looking-to-the-future, is riduculous!

Today's NASA lurches from one systemic failure to another, throwing around a lot of money on out-dated systems. There are brilliant aerospace scientists and engineers out there that desperately want to "shake things up" at NASA and bring it back up to its glory-days. But no one's listening to them. NASA seems stuck in "what's feasible and cheap", instead of "what's possible and most needed." THAT was my point.

Also, as things stand now, Russia will probably be the first to land on Mars, since we'll most likely be out of plutonium by then. And Russia is already courting China for joint ventures for manned space-flights. So it's also quite possible that, if and when the U.S. (public or private) gets into space in a meaningful way, that the two Biggest Bullies on the Block will be "in charge" of most of our solar system!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2010 9:22:04 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 16, 2010 9:25:13 AM PST
M. Helsdon says:
"But instead of putting serious R&D money into a new propulsion system, as timetobuy suggested, they just created a "timetable" for when the U.S. plutonium would be gone."

The plutonium-238 is a power source, not a propulsion system. Beyond the orbit of Mars, solar power from solar panels becomes increasingly ineffective.

NASA has been performing considerable research and investment into future propulsion systems:

* The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) looks to be the most likely candidate, requiring hydrogen as its fuel. However, VASIMR still needs a power source for which it would require a nuclear power system or solar panels (so for deep space you require the plutonium-238).

* Project Prometheus, a nuclear thermal rocket is also under study, but it needs funding and otherwise will be in danger of cancellation.

As for Russia: Roscosmos has publicly suggested collaboration with NASA (and ESA) for a joint Mars mission.

Posted on Jan 16, 2010 1:06:56 PM PST
Um, Marilyn, re: "Also, as things stand now, Russia will probably be the first to land on Mars, since we'll most likely be out of plutonium by then." You're really mixing up your facts.

Right now, plutonium has NOTHING to do with people landing on Mars. It is used to power space probes that go into deep space, where solar panels are ineffective. For example, the Martial rovers use solar panels to gather power, whereas the Cassini spacecraft, which is much further out, uses plutonium.

The future NASA Orion capsule for Moon and Mars missions uses solar power and fuel cells, not plutonium.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2010 2:47:31 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 16, 2010 2:50:16 PM PST
M. Helsdon says:
R.A. Lee,

"For example, the Martial rovers use solar panels to gather power, whereas the Cassini spacecraft, which is much further out, uses plutonium."

The Mars Exploration Rovers each include eight radioisotope heater units to keep their electronic systems warm and working during the cold Martian night. Each RHU contains a small pellet of plutonium 238-dioxide.

Similar devices were used by the Apollo missions (the Apollo 13 unit is somewhere deep in the Pacific), some of the Soviet Luna probes and of course the deep space probes.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 16, 2010 4:30:59 PM PST
RGD says:
Relieving Earth's overpopulation by emigration to extraterrestrial colonies is an enduring myth. Using a couple of global birthrate estimates I've found of about 100,000,000 people/year or about 275,000/day it would be necessary to ship that many people off-Earth every day to balance the births. How many ships is that? Say 100 ships each carrying 2750 people, or 1000 ships@275 people - and that's just to maintain a population level. Utterly ridiculous.

Posted on Jan 16, 2010 5:51:30 PM PST
Hi Martin,

Hey, I learned something. I didn't realize the Rovers used them for mini-heaters. I thought that only the solar panels were used, since if they don't get enough sun, the Rovers will go kaput fairly quickly.

However, if I remember correctly, the Apollo missions used the plutonium only in some packages that were meant to sit on the Moon for extended periods. It was not directly related to getting them there and back. (And, yes, most people don't know that the Apollo 13's mission packages, containing plutonium, are sitting at the bottom of the Pacific. Nice call.)

In either case, plutonium would have nothing to do with manned propulsion or getting people to Mars.

Posted on Jan 16, 2010 5:58:01 PM PST
Hi RGD,

I remember long ago an article by Isaac Asimov where he did some estimates on whether colonizing other planets would help us out. He started out with colonizing the oceans (since 3/4 of the Earth is water). Then out to the nearest planets, etc.

The main problem he noted was that population DOUBLES something like every 35 years. So, if have a full Earth, then a whole Earth's worth of new population needs to go somewhere in 35 years, whatever that would be (15 billion people? 25 billion?). Then TWO Earth's worth of population would need to go somewhere 35 years after that.

I agree with you. No way could we move that many folks. And we would run out of planets and asteroids to fill pretty quickly.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2010 2:38:39 AM PST
M. Helsdon says:
R.A. Lee,

"In either case, plutonium would have nothing to do with manned propulsion or getting people to Mars."

True, I noted that a while ago, but we mustn't let facts get in the way of Marilyn's fantasies.

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 9:14:27 AM PST
Hi Bob!

Thanks for the clarification, that plutonium is only used for unmanned NASA missions.

However, don't you think the propulsion systems for manned missions needs to be something better than solar power and fuel cells?

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18283-engage-the-x-drive-ten-ways-to-transverse-deep-space.html

This is a great 12/09 article from New Scientist, ENGAGE THE X DRIVE: TEN WAYS TO TRANSVERSE DEEP SPACE.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2010 9:24:24 AM PST
M. Helsdon says:
"Thanks for the clarification, that plutonium is only used for unmanned NASA missions."

Apollo used them for lunar experiments.

"However, don't you think the propulsion systems for manned missions needs to be something better than solar power and fuel cells?"

Solar panels and fuel cells provide power; they are not necessarily part of a propulsion system.

"This is a great 12/09 article from New Scientist, ENGAGE THE X DRIVE: TEN WAYS TO TRANSVERSE DEEP SPACE."

VASIMR and nuclear rockets have already been mentioned on this thread. Solar sails are already being assessed, but two attempts so far have failed due to launch failures.

Bussard ramjets are a form of interstellar rocket and may not work well in our vicinity because of the relative local scarcity of interstellar hydrogen. Other forms of interstellar drive are way beyond our technology.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2010 11:00:31 AM PST
To RGD:
RE: "Relieving Earth's overpopulation by emigration to extraterrestrial colonies is an enduring myth."

Not true. No one who has even three functioning brain cells hooked up in parallel is seriously promoting interplanetary migration as an answer to Earth's overpopulation.

By the way, Earth's population is not increasing as fast as some people would have us to believe. The latest estimates show an increase of only about 1.0%, or 77,200,000 per annum.
Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2010 11:05:20 AM PST
To RGD:
RE: "...to balance the births."

The population increase is not just the births; it's the birth rate minus the death rate, in other words, the NET increase.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2010 12:29:38 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 19, 2010 5:16:18 PM PST
To Marilyn Martin:
RE: "However, don't you think the propulsion systems for manned missions needs to be something better than solar power and fuel cells?"

Solar power and fuel cells are used for running the various onboard systems, whether for manned or unmanned spacecraft. Propulsion for operational or near future spacecraft remains the old chemical rocket engines. And, yes, we do need something better. The Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR®) system seems like the best bet for a near term propulsion system - if NASA doesn't mess it up. Here's a link to the VASIMR page: http://www.adastrarocket.com/VASIMR.html. Notice that it's NOT a NASA site.

While the article in the New Scientist was interesting, there was really nothing new there - except at the very end where there was a brief mention of spacecraft powered by dark matter and black holes that was really, really speculative.

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 1:50:15 PM PST
Ronald Craig says:
Well, we're ALL about the speculation here, Walter!

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 3:09:58 PM PST
Hi Walter!

I read your VASIMR article. Very interesting! I'm still looking for a propulsion system that gobbles up substance(s) already in space, and thus doesn't need to take tons of fuel on the journey.

The dark matter type of fuel is still beyond us, technologically speaking, but that's the idea. Maybe the LHC will discover sub-atomic particles that are more than the sum-of-their-parts, or give off more energy than expected from a small source.

Do you have any ideas for a fuel-from-space type of propulsion system, that's more feasible right now than using dark matter?

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 3:15:24 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 17, 2010 3:16:14 PM PST
M. Helsdon says:
"Do you have any ideas for a fuel-from-space type of propulsion system, that's more feasible right now than using dark matter?"

Interplanetary: solar sail, possibly magnetic sail.

Interstellar: Bussard ramjet (see A World Out of Time); solar sail boosted by a powerful laser that stays home (see The Mote in God's Eye)

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 4:30:31 PM PST
Is anyone planning to be in Spain next May? If so, you may want to check out the "Space Propulsion Conference" in San Sebastian (May 3-6). ESA is running it, and NASA isn't listed as a participant. But there may be some interesting, even innovative spacecraft propulsion ideas worth considering.

http://www.propulsion2010.com/

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 9:38:31 PM PST
Hi Marilyn,

Yes, obviously we need rockets too to make it to Mars. And, it would be NICE to have FASTER rockets. But please don't pin a Mars mission and other manned missions on something like a lack of plutonium. Current rockets CAN do the job. Are they perfect and the best? Absolutely not, but we have to start somewhere.

Posted on Jan 17, 2010 9:48:14 PM PST
Hi Walter,

Um, so here is a VASIMIR NASA link-> http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/support/researching/aspl/vasimr.html

I don't buy NASA would screw it up. If they are funded properly, and the government second guessers would get out of their way, I think they would do a great job.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2010 10:06:04 PM PST
RGD says:
Ah, but what about the population without the requiste 3 cells? I've been following closely aeronautics, then space travel literature and developments (as well as SF) since the 1940's - that fascination is what many of my friends grew up with as well. Unrealistic as it is, saving by colonization has been put forth by writers for many years, most of whom were more hopeful than stupid.
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Discussion in:  Science Fiction forum
Participants:  99
Total posts:  1309
Initial post:  Sep 19, 2009
Latest post:  Sep 15, 2013

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