Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Why NASA could never take us back to the Moon

ASM826's post yesterday looked back on the race to the Moon nostalgically, as a lost age of engineering and an opportunity squandered.  I'm not so sure.  The Moon race was an anomaly in American history, a massive engineering project divorced from financial return.  The great projects from the 19th and 20th centuries all were focused on profit and growth - the Erie canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Interstate Highway system.  Project Apollo stands out as the oddball.

There's no mystery about why we never went back.  I wrote about this nine years ago.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jack Kennedy's Treasure Fleet

I was 11 years old, and it was late. We simply weren't allowed to stay up that late - after 11:00. But this was no normal day. We all huddled around that old Black-and-White television set, watching a terrible picture that showed the first man on the moon. Dad was in Paris finishing his PhD research, and watched it projected on a huge screen at the Place de la Concorde. This was maybe the last time that an American's money was no good in Paris.

We haven't been back, since Gene Cernan climbed back aboard the LEM in December, 1972. Some folks think this is a crying shame. I used to be one of them. Now I recognize that there could not have been any other outcome. We've seen this before.

Between 1405 and 1433, the Chinese Ming dynasty sent a series of exploration voyages to southeast Asia, India, and even Africa. While the Portuguese under Prince Henry struggled down the western coast of Africa in their tiny caravels, huge Chinese treasure ships sailed to Calicut and Mogadishu.

And then they were gone, as if they had never been. Why?

The historian David Landes spends considerable time on this question in his indispensable The Wealth And Poverty Of Nations. The Chinese voyages differed in one critical way from those of Diaz and Columbus: the Chinese voyages were motivated by a desire to glorify the Middle Kingdom, while the European ones were motivated by the desire for filthy lucre:
In the 1430s a new emperor reigned in Peking, one who "knew not Joseph." A new, Confucian crowd completed for influence, mandarins who scorned and distrusted commerce (for them, the only true source of wealth was agriculture) and detested the eunuchs who had planned and carried out the great voyages. For some decades, the two groups vied for influence, the balance shifting now one way, not the other. But fiscality and the higher Chinese morality were on the Confucian side. The maritime campaign had strained the empire's finances and weakened its authority over a population bled white by taxes and corvee levies.


So, after some decades of tugging and hauling, of alternating celebration and commemoration on the one hand, of contumely and repudiation on the other, the decision was taken not only to cease from maritime exploration but to erase the very memory of what had gone before lest later generations be tempted to renew the folly.


At the same time, [the Chinese] desire to overawe meant that costs far exceeded returns. These voyages reeked of extravagance. Whereas the first profits (the first whiff of pepper) and the promise of even greater ones to come were a powerful incentive to Western venturers, in China the pecuniary calculus said no.


The vulnerability of the program - here today, gone tomorrow - was reinforced by its official character. In Europe, the opportunity of private initiative that characterized even such royal projects as the search for a sea route to the Indies was a source of participatory funding and an assurance of rationality. Nothing like that in China, where the Confucian state abhorred merchantile success.
So why did we leave the Moon, never to return? Why is NASA wandering in the wilderness? Let's update Landes, shall we?  In Europe America, the opportunity of private initiative that characterized even such royal Government projects as the search for a sea route to the Indies low-cost way to orbit was a source of participatory funding and an assurance of rationality. Oops - that's your problem, right there.

The heroism of the Astronaut corps doesn't change the fact that NASA will not - and can not - ever do what Columbus did. If they want to make a difference, to make it possible for people to live in Space, they should declare that they will purchase X kilograms of orbital launch delivery at $Y per kilo, and get out of the way. Unlike the X-Prize and Spaceship-One, NASA's pecuniary calculus will always be a football game.


ASM826 said...

The transcontinental railroad, the C&O canal, and the Erie Canal were not strictly government projects. They were supported, allowed, even initially subsidized, but they were private industry projects.

The Interstate Highways were built as a Defense Dep't. project, based on the need to move military convoys anywhere in the country and to allow for mass evacuations, based on the Autobahn model. it was sold as business and ease of travel, but that was not the purpose. The original name of the system was the “National Defense Highway System”. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/ndhs.htm

I agree, the next steps in space exploration should be profit based and private. As long as it is government supported and allowed, and possibly subsidized, it can become profitable.

None of this changes the loss of opportunity and momentum in the early 1970s as we cancelled the last Apollo missions and gave up building the next generation systems that would have allowed us to build a permanent base on the moon and start reaching for the planets.

It's literally like we had built the transcontinental railroad, ran 17 trains, and then shut the whole thing down and abandoned it.

Borepatch said...

No argument on the lost momentum, other than it was never realistic to believe that the momentum could continue when it was entirely funded by the government.

But the railroads were privately funded (and remain to this day profit motivated). Yes, the government granted the land for right of way but the tracks were paid for by corporations. The corporations are profitable today hauling freight.

I think that one of Obama's few successes was the privatization of the space effort, which is building a sustainable level of momentum.

Beans said...

But, to go back to the Age of Western Exploration, a lot of the 'first' waves of exploration were funded by the various 'governments' one way or another. The second wave was privately funded. Sure, the first explorers were supposed to look for economic opportunity, but their first goal was to explore and seek out new lands, second to find exploitable resources.

So, with space exploration, NASA should be riding on the front of the wave of exploration, first to the Moon, first to Mars, first to the Asteroids, etc. They could be 'firsting' on civilian platforms 'rented' or 'sponsored' by NASA.

Now, the real shame was the stranglehold that NASA took upon the incipient space industry in the early 70's, killing all potential until Musk, Bigelow and Bezos stepped in. Others tried, but NASA regulations and their iron-fisted "Only We can Space" attitude obfuscated, slowed down and outright killed many dreams, including a few that would have actually succeeded. (Think I'm kidding about NASA's attitude? Remember how pissed NASA and the State Department were when Russia sold space to tourists on the ISS?)

The NASA of the 60's was not the NASA of the 70's, 80's or 90's. Many of the plans by the big companies for commercial space after Apollo were shut down because of NASA's meddling and mean-spiritedness (along with the congress-critters whose political careers lived on a steady diet of NASA pork.) McDonnell-Douglas was looking into privatizing the Gemini and Big-Gemini (a 10 seat Gemini with a 2 seat command Gemini on top, really interesting) as a civilian alternative to the Shuttle and that was shot down, by NASA.

I have no problem with NASA innovating, NASA being the first at new stuff, like nuclear propulsion, moon-bases and such. Where I draw the line is when NASA tries to relive the glory days in their typical bloated NASA way. Searching through various archives, I can see 3-4 serious attempts to use basic Shuttle systems to easily go the next step into heavy lifting, or commercial applications, not to mention the whole Orion-Constellation program which was just about to take off when it was shut down, only to be brought back bigger and not better as the SLS (somewhere between Barky the Lightbringer and ULA wanting to control everything (via their puppet congresscritters - conspiracy alert!)

Ah, fudge, lost my train of thought. Basically, NASA to the Forefront, money-grubbing capitalists to follow!!!

drjim said...

Beans pretty much nailed it. I've closely followed the space program since I was old enough to see the Echo passive balloon reflector in orbit, and spent the last 10 years of my career chucking satellites to GTO for Boeing. NASA tried to keep a stranglehold on the space biz and failed. NASA wasn't even particularly happy when the USAF launched their own satellites using their own rockets, but National Security" and all that prevailed.

And Musk is the first one who's been able to sustain his business model, regardless of where his launch vehicles came from.

Beans said...

Thanks, drjim. NASA sure burned all the ships, didn't they?

At least Musk is using all his own hardware, rather than ULA charging us out the wazoodle for Russkie engines.

Come on, people. We (the USA) made the F series, the J series, even the (somewhat) mighty RS-25 (Space Shuttle Main Engine) was just a reworked and modernized J-2. And we're using Commie crap at ULA to launch our best and brightest work? And ULA is charging us out the bejebus for reworking our old ICBMs and utilizing the same damned stuff they sold us 30 years ago?

One of the greatest losses from the deactivation of the Saturn series was the loss of all the knowledge behind the F series. Seriously. All the main tech data just... tossed. Like no one would ever want to make BFR engines ever again. GAAAAHHHHH!!!! It would be equivalent to, oh, say, flying 1 series of jets and then going back to rotary, destroying all the tooling, all the specs, all the spare parts. And then, suddenly, 50 years later saying, hey, maybe we can build jet engines again, and dragging parts out of museums to see what they actually do. Wait... hrmmmm. Oh, yeah, that's exactly what NASA did when considering the F-1 or a variant to fly the SLS in 2012.

Oh, and here's an article about the F-reboot: https://arstechnica.com/science/2013/04/how-nasa-brought-the-monstrous-f-1-moon-rocket-back-to-life/

Jerks. Big arsed Jerks. Big, gigantic NASA and Congress Jerks.

I remember the throaty roar of 5 of those beautiful engines blasting off. So powerful, so majestic. Maybe one day Rockedyne, or someone, will bring an advanced F series engine back to life for real.

And the plans for a NERVA (nuclear rocket engine) on a Saturn upper stage. Sigh. Drool. Sigh. We could have been there in the early 80's. (weeping sounds)

Beans said...

Well, poop. Just read in the arstechnica article (listed above) states that all the old documentation of the F-1 engine wasn't lost at all. Sorry. Hate getting stuff wrong, and since I don't have the gravitas of a MSM reporter, I have to say when I am wrong.

Still, all the tooling (the really critical parts) was lost. Read the article on how a small group of engineers got one engine to refire. Maybe there's some hope after all for NASA, if they'd just let their people innovate and explore again.

drjim said...

Musk's engines were developed from a design bought and paid for by U$ Taxpayer$ during some of NASA's, or perhaps a contractor like Rocketdyne's, later engine research.

The Russians build very good rocket engines, and have some innovative design features in them. Like Russian aircraft, they're pretty where they have to be, like leading edges, and pretty sloppy where it doesn't matter much.

And just like their aircraft, their launch vehicles are, shall we say...,"robust"?