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Another Small Step Before the Giant Leap 277

Posted by Hemos
from the a-brave-new-tomorrow dept.
Armchair Anarchist writes "Over at Futurismic, a new column proposes that NASA's plans to establish a lunar colony are an attempt to run before we can walk properly, and that developing orbital habitats first would be a wiser and more realistically attainable project. From the article: "... it seems to me that the trump card is with the orbitals; orbit is closer, cheaper and easier to get to, and offers more flexibility as a long-term outpost. Sure, let's put men back on the moon, mine it for helium-3, research its history and origins. But it makes more sense to launch missions of that type from an already-established colony in orbit.""
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Another Small Step Before the Giant Leap

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  • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:31AM (#17285582) Journal
    ... to establish colonies in Science Fiction books and on NASA proposals. Seriously. I grew up with the dream of colonies in space, and cheap space flight. Space flight has only gotten more expensive, and our national will to make this dream come true has dropped to near zero. After hearing about plan after plan, and seeing nothing come of it, you get jaded.

    I hope I am wrong, but am willing to bet we won't have anything except the ISS (if we have even that) by 2020. The only possible exception might be if the Chinese put up something similar to ISS... but even that will be a far cry from anything we are talking about today (or twenty years ago).
  • A good point (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Aladrin (926209) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:31AM (#17285590)
    I think they have a good point here. We've been working on a 'space station' for quite some time and barely have anything to show for it yet. How much planning could they possibly put into a moon base yet? The basics are pretty much like earth bases, and the long-term effects of no/low-gravity are not really known. So it'd be like designing a regular earth base with airlocks, and huge gaping holes where they are going to put the unknown things they'll need once they understand non-earth living.

    Just a bit premature.
  • Sure, but... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tonycheese (921278) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:33AM (#17285604)
    Well, it's nice to doubt the decisions made by NASA, but one would hope that if they announce a project of this scale they would have thought through their plan and considered other options first. Hopefully they know what they're doing with their next project if they've decided to funnel a few billion dollars into it?
  • by everphilski (877346) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:33AM (#17285608) Journal
    ... what 'great leap' is this? The only leap, really, is the change in vehicle. The moon is well-defined: we had the lunar prospector [] mission which gave us a detailed survey of the moons surface and we've been there several times in the Apollo era. Sticking around in LEO is just wasting time. Building satellites around the earth is completely different than building habitations on Mars or the Moon, structurally and in the complications faced ( micrometeoroids, gravity fields, dust and static charges, etc)
  • Re:A good point (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TheKidWho (705796) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:34AM (#17285612)
    "long term effects of no/low gravity now known?" People have lived in space for almost a year, quit the nonsense.
  • ISS 2? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TheKidWho (705796) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:38AM (#17285672)
    What you want an ISS 2?

    ISS is already up there and should be much more mature by the time we plan on landing on the moon again.
  • They're trying to establish a lunar base, rightly recognizing that a lunar colony (or an orbital colony, for that matter) would currently be beyond their reach.

    There are actually still a few advantages to stopping at an orbital base on the way to the moon, but all you need at the base is an insulated fuel depot and a robot arm, not a massive spinning habitat. Even once it's a good time to build massive spinning habitats for their own sake, we'll want to mine lunar resources or captured NEO asteroids to do it, and learning how to make a lunar base more self-sufficient is one small step on the way there.
  • Problem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jimstapleton (999106) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:39AM (#17285696) Journal
    I'd rater see something on the moon than in orbit...

    There's actually mineable material on the moon, I don't know how useful it is, but at least theres a chance the moon can produce resources as well as research.
  • by rickett81 (987309) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:40AM (#17285704) Homepage
    Space Flight has only become more expensive because the government(s) is involved. Only the government is involved because there is little money to be made by having people in space.

    If there was money to be made, someone in the private sector would have already designed and built what is needed. Eventually, the government backed scientists in the ISS or on a shuttle will find a way to so something profitable in space. Once this happens, and the cost of the space flight is justified by price of the returning product, then, we will see a useful step toward a space colony of some type.

    There is not enough monetary justification for a moon base. The cost of transportation would far outpace the price of the minerals returned.

  • I tend to disagree (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:43AM (#17285732)
    You need to set extended goals to make the intermediate steps possible. It was the goal of sending people to the moon "ready or not" that made it possible in the first place. It is not the purpose of the national agencies to make permanent habitats... just make the proof of concept habitats. That has been done as far as the space stations are concerned. It is not up to the rest of us, private industry etc to make permanent habitation a reality. Bigelow is set to do this for the space stations.... the role of NASA is now to tackle the difficult task of setting a lunar base and publish the information as to what to do and what to avoid for those who will actually make permanent homes there in the future. The reason that space exploration has made so little progress since Apollo, is that national agencies were expected to do it all. Well they should not. The role of national space agencies is to build the prototypes, show that it can be done, and how it can be done, and then let the private sector get into the business of incremental improvements and actual settlement. You need an economy built around any new colony... it must grow on its own.
  • simply put (Score:1, Insightful)

    by phrostie (121428) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:43AM (#17285738)
    no it doesn't make more sense.

    it was the distraction of the shuttle and ISS that cost us the last few decades.

  • Yeah right. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ihlosi (895663) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:47AM (#17285782)
    But it makes more sense to launch missions of that type from an already-established colony in orbit.

    Yeah right. It makes so much sense to launch a lot of stuff into orbit, just to use a small amount of that stuff to go to the moon.

    There's nothing in orbit that can be used by the colony, apart from solar energy. Everything else has to be shipped up there, or generated, or simply isn't available (gravity, anyone ?).

    On the moon, there's at least a chance to use some local resources (Oxygen, building material, maybe water). And gravity. There's a lot of difference between pratically zero-G and 0.16 G. In the latter, stuff will start acting somewhat like on earth (things/liquids fall on the floor, people can actually walk and distinguish between up and down). You could have an actual kitchen on a moon base - unthinkable in zero G.

  • One simple reason (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ysachlandil (220615) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:49AM (#17285814)
    One reason: Gravity. They have it on the moon. They don't have it in orbit. Makes showering, sleeping, eating, everything more comfortable. Plus the fact that you don't have your colonists dying of accidentally bumping into something and breaking all their bones.

    A colony implies people living there for longer than 10 years. Zero gravity is a bitch at 10+ years.

  • by Rob T Firefly (844560) on Monday December 18, 2006 @10:50AM (#17285834) Homepage Journal
    That may be the only thing that would inspire any progress at this point. The American space program has arguably never made so many advances at such a grueling pace as during the Cold War, when the big motivator was to beat the Russians at everything they could. Without a manjor spacefaring superpower to contend with, the desire of the powers that be to cream the next milestone and flaunt the bragging rights just isn't there anymore.

    Friendly cooperative American/European/Japanese Mars probes aside, I'd wager that if word got out today that China or North Korea or Grand Fenwick or someone were planning a manned Mars flight, NASA would be thrown a large bag of moneys and ordered to get some sort of competing plan together within the week.
  • Re:ISS 2? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by FhnuZoag (875558) on Monday December 18, 2006 @11:00AM (#17285934)
    ISS isn't a proper space colony, though.

    1. It isn't remotely self-sufficient. ISS 2 (or whatever) probably won't be fully self-sufficient either, but it'll let us work on the logistics issue first.
    2. It is strictly a space lab. If we want it to be a portal into the rest of the solar system, we need to have something where we can construct and refit spacecraft in orbit.
    3. It is very low orbit.
  • Re:Exactly! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rob the Bold (788862) on Monday December 18, 2006 @11:04AM (#17285998)
    Let's put some more junk into orbit

    . . . around the Moon.

  • Better Plan (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Alsee (515537) on Monday December 18, 2006 @11:11AM (#17286110) Homepage
    As much as I want us to return to the moon and get to Mars and beyond, I think we're going about it all wrong. We're sending people up on top of insanely expensive fireworks. It's just plain too expensive. It's not practical or sustainable.

    Instead of blowing insane amounts of money on the space station and on unreasonable shuttle launches, we should be pouring those exact same dollars into RESEARCH on better and cheaper means to reach space. Whether it is beamed energy launch vehicles, rail-gun like ground launch facilities, a space elevator, scramjet engines, or who-knows what other tech, we will be far better off if we (temporarily) sacrifice the manned space program to sink the up-front dollars into cheaper access to space. Once you have that cheaper access, then future dollars will provide vastly greater dividends in future practical sustainable manned space development. Then and only then can we establish practical and sustainable oribtal facilities and a moon base and even a SUSTAINED Mars base presence.

    As much as I would like to see us get people to Mars, I don't want a replay of the Moon joke. Over-priced impracitical throwaway missions... and we haven't been back there in THREE DECADES. I do not want a throwaway mission to Mars. As nice as it would be to get people there and get dome decent science out of it, it's just NOT WORTH IT to do a tera-bucks throwaway mission to land a couple of people for a holliday vacation and then abandon Mars for two or three of four decades.

    I'd rather wait a while for that first mission to Mars and then see it done right. Do it when it makes sense to do it. Shift the current spending to more robitic missions and probes across the solar system, and shift the spending to development of more efficent space access technology.

    So I am opposed to our current manned program and I am opposed to the various proposals for more manned missions... and I do so out of my deep desire and support for manned space projects.

  • by sherriw (794536) on Monday December 18, 2006 @11:42AM (#17286514)
    Listen Slashdot- please stop with the "witty" story titles. For those of us using live bookmarks or news feeds- it really sucks to have to click over to a story just to find out what the hell it is. Geez!
  • by maddogsparky (202296) on Monday December 18, 2006 @11:51AM (#17286654)
    Look back at exploration prior to the 17th century. These trips were made in small ships that were marginally self-sufficient. They sailed with extra crew because they _knew_ they were likely to return fewer in number, if at all, and had to have a minimum number of people left to sail. They were equipped to sail for intermediate lengths of time, but not well suited to long-range exploration. They sailed with pretty much only the materials they were expected to need, and if they ran out of something important, they tried to limp along until they could get back to a port.

    Compare this with later ships that circumnavigated the globe on multi-year expeditions. The ships tended to be larger and more self-sufficient. They included things like portable blacksmith shops that could repair and fabricate unknown articles as needed, manufactured from stock materials that were also brought along.

    Now that private companies are showing some proficiency with tasks that were previously only the domain of government (e.g. launch capabilities, manufacture of orbital habitats and facilities), NASA should concentrate on the next step in exploration. If they want to explore (which I fully support doing), they should concentrate on developing things which support exploration that nobody has done yet. Support tasks, such as launch capability, habitats, etc., should be farmed out in competitive contracts or Grand-Challenge style contests.

    A moon base is a logical step, but it is really just a support role. NASA should farm this out or indicate willingness to purchase capabilities and participate in evaluation, but should focus on creating long-range exploration capability. After all, even Columbus's trip was government financed. Once people became aware of the investment potential, they financed new ventures themselves and eventually opened up what had been exploration efforts into commercial enterprises and settlements.

  • by maddogsparky (202296) on Monday December 18, 2006 @12:34PM (#17287392)
    "we have to learn to walk before we can run". "we have to learn to crawl before we can walk" "trying to fly before we can stand up"

    The above are all commonly said and assumed to be true when in fact, they may not be.

    1. Several of my younger siblings were able to run before they could walk. The MIT media lab ran had the same experience with their "waliking" robots-some were able to run more easily than walk.

    2. I've seen a few babies that didn't learn to crawl until after they were walking. They had a short period where they sort-of scooted around, then went straight to walking/running without learning to move on all fours.

    3. Loons (the Minnesota state bird) never learn to walk. Their center of gravity is so far forward that they are unable to stand and can only push themselves around on land (although I've heard some people claim they can land in trees). However, they are fully capable of flight.

    Doing stuff in space is not a "natural progression". Just like in rock climbing, dynamic moves (i.e. jumping to the next hold) are sometimes called for because there are some places you can't get to by taking incremental steps-there comes a point when you just have to go all out and hope that you hit your target. Small steps got us the Shuttle and the ISS. We are overdue for a dynamic move.
  • by StCredZero (169093) on Monday December 18, 2006 @01:09PM (#17288070)
    This article has serious logical errors. He's constantly using "bait and switch."

    1. To refute the point that an underground lunar colony would be better protected, he states that a large enough meteorite would damage any lunar colony. Duh. What are the relative probabilities for the larger meteors? Much smaller for larger rocks. His argument here is vacuous.
    2. To refute the point that the moon has gravity for the health of the astronauts, be points out that larger stations will be built to use centrifugal force. But isn't he advocating the completion of the ISS as one of his major points? My understanding is that this won't use rotation to provide artificial gravity.
  • by DerekLyons (302214) <fairwater@gmai l . c om> on Monday December 18, 2006 @01:40PM (#17288600) Homepage
    It might not be NASA who puts the habitats in orbit but Bigelow Aerospace... They envision to have their own complete habitat up by 2015, and NASA actually is interested to use them too (Bigelow licensed the tech..) Virgin Galactic is the forerunner in sub-orbital flights beginning 2008-2009 whereas Space Adventures will begin trips around moon not long after that.. the people behind aforementioned companies are highly idealistic in bringing humanity to space. We are truly living the first steps of private space exploration at the moment

    Bigelow, Virgin, etc... are no more exploration than is Disney Cruise Lines or Six Flags Over [_____]. The folks that use their services are tourists, or passengers - not explorers.
  • by CptNerd (455084) <> on Monday December 18, 2006 @02:33PM (#17289478) Homepage
    The gold prospectors in California didn't get rich, Hilton and the guys who sold the prospectors shovels and picks got rich. Robots can explore, but you need exploitation, too, and that takes people. That's also how you get money to keep exploring further out, money that's not dependent on the whims of the electorate or the biases of elected demagogues.

Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.