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Space United States Science

White House Panel Seeks Input On Spaceflight Plans 224

Posted by samzenpus
from the in-space-nobody-can-hear-you-vote dept.
Neil H. writes "The Augustine Commission, commissioned by the White House and NASA to provide an independent review of the current US human spaceflight program and potential new directions, is seeking public input on a document describing the preliminary beyond-LEO exploration scenarios they're analyzing. The destination-based scenarios, designed with NASA's current budget in mind, range from a Lunar Base (essentially NASA's current plan), to 'Mars First' (human exploration of Mars ASAP), to 'Flexible Path' (initially focused on several destinations in shallow gravity wells, such as Lagrange points, near-Earth asteroids, and the Martian moon Phobos). The Commission is also seeking input on the issues of engaging commercial spaceflight, in-space refueling, and coordinating human and robotic exploration."
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White House Panel Seeks Input On Spaceflight Plans

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @11:49AM (#28796033) Journal
    So I figure we build a few thousand probe droids with solar sails and sling shot them around the sun and send them aimed at planets of all nearest solar systems [wikipedia.org]. I've got some basic plans drafted up [blueharvest.net]. Couple hundred years from now the first will be hitting Alpha Centauri and although we may all be dead, the footage they send back will make for some bitchin opening movie scenes.
    • Yeah well my ion drive will still beat your solar sail crap to Alpha Centauri any day. And will be many times easier to steer.
    • by hardburn (141468)

      Don't use solar sails. Use nuclear pulse thrusters. Those same probes could be sending back images within our lifetimes.

    • by Shakrai (717556) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:08PM (#28796353) Journal

      Couple hundred years from now the first will be hitting Alpha Centauri

      Not if we play the game with 'bloodlust' turned on.

    • by eln (21727) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:12PM (#28796417) Homepage
      Dude, this is America! We don't wait for things! Even the 6 months it takes to get to Mars is pushing it...the way our attention span is, we'd probably launch the astronauts to Mars, and then 3 months later some Congresscritter would recommend cutting out this silly "Mars mission" from the budget, because no one even remembers what that was for, and use the money to build a new movie theater in his district (named after him, naturally). They'd lay off everyone at Mission Control, and the astronauts up in their capsule would wonder why no one is answering their transmissions anymore.

      Talking about something that would take 200 years? Hell, when Voyager was (briefly) back in the news a couple of years ago, most people probably didn't even know what the hell it was, other than some vague memory in the deep recesses of their brains that it had something to do with Star Trek, much less what it was supposed to be doing out there. 200 years from now, people will probably think the transmissions coming from your proposed spacecraft are from some alien race and freak out.

      My prediction is that this whole process results in some pretty exciting plans, which will all be canceled after NASA's budget gets slashed yet again.
      • by PitaBred (632671)
        A movie theater? C'mon... that kind of budget would be worth at least a minor-league stadium or regional airport or something
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by elrous0 (869638) *
      A couple of hundred years?!? I don't think you appreciate the scale we're talking here to the nearest solar systems. The fastest probes we've ever launched took like 9-10 years just to reach the edge of the solar system--just a few light *hours* away. The nearest solar systems are several light *years* away. So you're not looking at a few hundred years--more like tens of thousands of years. Not only that, but we also don't have the math or craft to hit anything with the kind of precision that far away, and
  • send up a noah ark-esque mission to the nearest solar system and back.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by T Murphy (1054674)

      send up a noah ark-esque mission to the nearest solar system and back.

      You missed the memo: the whole point of space exploration is to find a way to permanently get rid of our lawyers*, politicians and telemarketers. Having the thing come back would defeat the entire purpose.

      *NYCL would be out of a job in a world without lawyers, so he's exempt.

      • by Shakrai (717556) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:11PM (#28796397) Journal

        the whole point of space exploration is to find a way to permanently get rid of our lawyers*, politicians and telemarketers

        I thought we had firearms and pitchforks for that?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mcgrew (92797)

        You missed the memo: the whole point of space exploration is to find a way to permanently get rid of our lawyers*, politicians and telemarketers.

        The politicians ARE lawyers. That's why normal people can't understand the laws.

        NYCL would be out of a job in a world without lawyers, so he's exempt

        He's my third favorite lawyer, right behind the lady I hired to handle my divorce and the man I hired to handle my bankrupcy. When you need a lawyer, you NEED a lawyer.

        Lawrence Lessig comes in a close fourth. I was pis

        • by Shakrai (717556)

          He's my third favorite lawyer, right behind the lady I hired to handle my divorce and the man I hired to handle my bankrupcy. When you need a lawyer, you NEED a lawyer.

          I see your bankruptcy and divorce attorneys and raise you a criminal defense attorney who got my name cleared of a felony I didn't commit :)

          Lawyers can be a real PITA at times and I think they have too much influence in Washington (how many Congress-critters are lawyers?) but you are absolutely right: When you need a lawyer, you NEED a lawyer. I suspect that the people who always complain about them have never needed the services of one.

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by T Murphy (1054674)
            Don't worry- my dad is putting his law degree to good use as an FBI agent putting corrupt politians in prison, so I realize how lawyers can do good. The bad ones just make it too easy to pick on the group as a whole.
          • by PitaBred (632671)
            There are lawyers, and there are ambulance chasers. It's a common meme to say "kill all lawyers", but it's mostly in frustration with the current lawsuit-happy culture that a number of lawyers are more than willing to take their fee from. Don't forget... criminal and civil law are significantly different. Civil lawyers are WAY overpopulated. We need to cut off some of the lawsuit supply (fix copyrights/malpractice/tort law), at least cull a bit of the herd somehow.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by Shakrai (717556)

              Don't forget... criminal and civil law are significantly different. Civil lawyers are WAY overpopulated. We need to cut off some of the lawsuit supply (fix copyrights/malpractice/tort law), at least cull a bit of the herd somehow.

              I think we need to cull them out of Congress. Has anybody stopped to wonder why Congress is so good at passing mandates that are completely impractical in the real world? I tend to think it would do us some good if the people writing our laws included more engineers/doctors/law enforcement/technology/business/etc people and less lawyers. Lawyers are entirely too good at coming up with solutions that look great on paper and completely suck in the real world.

      • by CecilPL (1258010)

        You missed the memo: the whole point of space exploration is to find a way to permanently get rid of our lawyers*, politicians and telemarketers. Having the thing come back would defeat the entire purpose.

        Don't forget the hairdressers and telephone sanitizers.

        • by kalirion (728907)

          Don't forget the hairdressers and telephone sanitizers.

          Heh, first thing that went into my mind when I read GP.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by PitaBred (632671)
        So, lawyers, hairdressers, politicians and marketing people go on the B ark, and the engineers and scientists and such on the A ark? Let's launch the B ship first, because they're that much more important...
    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:12PM (#28796409)

      It all comes down to one thing: What's the point?

      The cost would be massive, 10%+ of the worlds GDP for several decades just to get the thing built and stocked. The risks would be huge, we know next to nothing about the kinds of things that could go wrong with such a plan and the risks we do know about are already significant. And the payoff? Next to nothing. Certainly there would be no economic payoff, even if we were able to establish a colony (and there's about a thousand ifs that would need to be fulfilled for that to happen) there would be no way to set up any kind of trading system over those kinds of distances. Not leaving a colony behind is even less cost efficient, you're basically consigning generations of people to strict rationing and constant danger for the purpose all to be able to look and see what's going on the next star system over (hint: probably absolutely nothing).

      No, there's only two ways that ark ships will be built.

      One is if we have advanced warning of a catastrophe so horrible that spending a significant portion of the worlds wealth and resources just to save a few thousand people is preferable to actually trying to solve the problem. I can't even think about what that kind of catastrophe could be, in order to build an arkship you're going to have to be able to move and mine asteroids so that's out. Anything that would disrupt the inner solar system would still leave semi-habitable environment inside the solar system at less risk than sending an arkship into the unknown.

      The second is if the society of Earth persecutes a group to the point that they want to leave, while paradoxically giving that group the wealth, technical knowledge, and political influence to make such a project happen. I just don't see that happening, unless the singularity really is near, and the kind of power and technology to make an arkship happens becomes commonplace.

      • by Hatta (162192) * on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:46PM (#28796941) Journal

        One is if we have advanced warning of a catastrophe so horrible that spending a significant portion of the worlds wealth and resources just to save a few thousand people is preferable to actually trying to solve the problem.

        The Sun will be going red giant in just 5 billion years. That's plenty of time to prepare.

      • Most of the catastrophes so horrible that they are unpreventable also give very little warning. Rogue black holes or gamma ray bursts are the two that spring immediately to mind here, but there might be others that we have no idea how to prepare for because the hazard is coming from something incredibly dangerous that we haven't invented yet.

        Since this is slashdot, perhaps the best analogy here would be offsite backups: you don't only make them when you can see a disaster coming.
      • Third scenario (Score:3, Insightful)

        by voss (52565)

        Minor note on your second scenario- It could be the group who is persecuted is the ones with money and technical knowledge, if they were politically influential they wouldn't be persecuted.

        Third Scenario- An inhabitable world is discovered within a few years travel time.

        Theres a lot more incentive to go when you sort of know whats there and as for trading who cares? If land is cheap and food is plentiful and you have a good chance of making it, people will go.

        "Ive got 30,000 in debt, and $500 a month in chi

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by TheMeuge (645043)

        1. The ultimate payoff is the eventual ability to spread beyond the solar system. In the grand scheme of things it's the most important long-term survival strategy for mankind.
        2. The proximate payoff are the myriad of technologies we would develop for building the stupid thing, which would have a direct and measurable impact all over the world... and would have an even greater impact on our relationship with the rest of the solar system.
        3.

        The second is if the society of Earth persecutes a group to the point that they want to leave, while paradoxically giving that group the wealth, technical knowledge, and political influence to make such a project happen.

        Jews?

  • by Man On Pink Corner (1089867) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:00PM (#28796193)

    The next time we send manned missions to the Moon (or Mars), let's get serious and do it sustainably. This business of sending someone up to collect rocks and beat a path back home just for the sake of planting a flag is just lame and depressing. Take the long view, secure international cooperation and funding, and work on genuine colonization efforts.

    • by Shakrai (717556)

      Take the long view, secure international cooperation and funding

      Because what the space program needs is more bureaucracy......

    • by mcgrew (92797) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:22PM (#28796563) Homepage Journal

      In 1969 it was unfeasable; bringing back a few (hundred pounds of) rocks was the best we could do at the time.

      You young folks wouldn't believe how primitive things were back then. The onboard Apollo computer, for example, weighed 180 pounds and was about as powerful as the Timex-Sinclair 1000 (1 mz CPU, 2k memory). Automatic doors, cellphones, medical readouts in hospitals, space shuttles, flat screen computers, were only in Star Trek and not in real life.

      To someone my age, we're living a science fiction life.

    • by CorporateSuit (1319461) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:24PM (#28796601)

      The next time we send manned missions to the Moon (or Mars), let's get serious and do it sustainably.

      You don't know much about the Apollo missions if that's your opinion of it. The ultimate mission of Apollo was to build a moon base. Before we could do that, we had to be able to land on the moon, know what it was made of, if it was living or dead, and if the moon tended to shred equipment. We need to know if it was possible to land within 100 miles of a target, and more. NASA was headed to Mars in a few years with only a few billion dollars if their funding was kept up. However, a recession and an unpopular war and many political factors (including people who were shouting "What's the point?" and then not listening for an answer) drained the NASA budget and instead of being able to apply all they were learning on the moon, it just became an entry in the encyclopedia and a memory.

      • The next time we send manned missions to the Moon (or Mars), let's get serious and do it sustainably.

        You don't know much about the Apollo missions if that's your opinion of it. The ultimate mission of Apollo was to build a moon base. Before we could do that, we had to be able to land on the moon, know what it was made of, if it was living or dead, and if the moon tended to shred equipment. We need to know if it was possible to land within 100 miles of a target, and more. NASA was headed to Mars in a few years with only a few billion dollars if their funding was kept up. However, a recession and an unpopular war and many political factors (including people who were shouting "What's the point?" and then not listening for an answer) drained the NASA budget and instead of being able to apply all they were learning on the moon, it just became an entry in the encyclopedia and a memory.

        The funding cut was decided in 1966 or 1967, I believe, before we even set foot on the Moon. I think it was definitely the right choice to continue the plans as long as the reduced funding would last - there was a chance that witnessing what was arguably the human race's greatest achievement would lead to a new source of funding.

      • by FleaPlus (6935) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:35PM (#28796781) Journal

        The ultimate mission of Apollo was to build a moon base.

        Do you have a citation for this? My understanding is that in 1969 Von Braun proposed as a follow-on project to Apollo not a lunar base, but human exploration of Mars [astronautix.com]. Under Von Braun's 1969 plan, the first Mars manned mission would launch in 1981, with a 50-person Martian base by 1989, using reusable spacecraft and under a peak NASA budget of $7 billion a year. Of course, I suppose he may have wanted a lunar base in parallel.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          Then you'll see that Mercury's main focus was putting a man in space. Apollo's main focus was putting a man on the moon and getting him safely home (There were to be 20 Apollo missions, the goal was achieved in 11, the moon base was an extension of the Apollo mission. The Mars mission would be a different series of missions than Apollo. Apollo's mission objectives can be found on NASA's website [nasa.gov] but the specifics are usually garnered from other books, like any of those written by the astronauts -- such as
        • Do you have a citation for this?

          My father was a NASA engineer on Apollo, and according to him they were actively planning for a Moon base as a follow-on, right up to the point where the whole thing got canceled. Not a clickable link, I know, but you know, personally I find it pretty strong evidence ...

  • by nweaver (113078) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:01PM (#28796197) Homepage

    All of the proposed plans are based on the arguably flawed assumption that humans can add significant value in flexibility over current robotic explorers. Which is clearly not the case based on experiences with the mars rovers and similar devices.

    Why can't we just admit the unpleasant: Yes, in 1969, if you wanted to explore the moon you needed a person. Now, 40 years later, you need robots and let the people sit comfortably back at JPL and Houston, safe and sound and cheaper.

    • by hardburn (141468) <hardburn@wumpu[ ]ave.net ['s-c' in gap]> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:04PM (#28796269)

      We don't send people out there because it's easy. We do it because it's hard.

    • by east coast (590680) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:06PM (#28796305)
      Because we want to get people to these destinations. The goal isn't for probes to inhabit these bodies, it's for humans to. If you take that away we've pretty much already accomplished these missions.

      Not to say that robots can't help in the near future, but it's not the reason we're doing it.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Why make humans go there before it's ready for humans to inhabit though?
        • As I said, robots can help in the near future. Why make me repeat something that I've already said?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by sumdumass (711423)

          The great thing about humans is the AI factor. The (artificial) intelligence in humans is vastly superior to actual artificial intelligence of robots or computers.

          Now, you might think we we didn't have any problems in mars. But we did, we have a rover stuck in a crater, we have had rovers that were stuck before and had to alter their missions while teams of engineers and massive amounts of resources were consumed attempting to unstuck them. A human can process this basic information much such as path and de

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by melikamp (631205)

        So what exactly is the point of sending a human to Mars? I happen to believe that humans must colonize the solar system just to survive, but why start with Mars? The Moon is much closer and offers all the same challenges.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by east coast (590680)
          I would agree that the moon should be first. But to claim that it's the same is foolish.
        • Mars is closer to earth gravity and once had an atmosphere which could conceivably make terraforming easier. Colonizing the moon would mean whoever lives there will always spend their time in giant glass bubbles.
          • by Narishma (822073)
            Mars still has an atmosphere.
          • by Shakrai (717556)

            Colonizing the moon would mean whoever lives there will always spend their time in giant glass bubbles.

            That doesn't sound much different from the poor bastards who have the misfortune of living in a major city ;)

        • by hardburn (141468)

          In terms of Delta-V [wikipedia.org], as far as putting things on the surface is concerned, Mars is actually closer because you can use aerobraking. If you just want to get into orbit, then the Moon is obviously easier, but I don't think the point is to wave as we go past.

          The challenges aren't necessarily the same. The environment of Mars isn't so far off from the more extreme environments on earth (like deserts or frozen tundras), so we can test a lot of equipment right here and now. Further, with no wind to shave down it

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Why not have the best of both worlds. I remember reading (over a decade ago) about a plan called Mars Direct [wikipedia.org].

        We could easily send robots and provisions for future colonization using the terms set forth in the plan.

        IM(not so)HO, this is a ploy for the Obama White House to emulate thunder created by the Kennedy White House. It's cheap and fake thunder for the sake of approval ratings.

        Apply their current success ratio to any future plan to get an idea of the likelihood for success. They should really start a

    • by FTWinston (1332785) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:09PM (#28796357) Homepage
      Even wearing a spacesuit, I betcha I could walk up slopes and around obstacles better than the (admittedly wonderfully performing) Spirit & Opportunity rovers.

      And hopefully after a few years of doing so, I wouldn't have to crawl around ass-first all the time.
      • by nweaver (113078) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:23PM (#28796585) Homepage

        But you can't be kept "alive" without tons and tons of support equipment....

        The infrastructure cost for humans in space is staggering. Look at just how many tons of shit needed to be put in orbit to build the ISS and keep people alive and supplied: there have been 48 manned flights and 37 unmanned flights. And thats to sustain 3 people continuously in low earth orbit.

        Do you realize just how many sattelites and autonomous scientific experiments you could put up with that much launch capability?

        And the current manned space program produces alomst NO science. Lets take the columbia's final mission, which cost 7 lives. For a pure science mission, all the scientific research could have been conducted by automated in-orbit devices (all the non-biological experiments, and most of the bio experiments on non-humans) or are predicated on human spaceflight (the bio experiments on people).

        Seven lives were sacrificed for nothing of value : they never needed to be there.

        Face it, space, for now, is not meant for fragile organic bags of mostly water.

        • bags of mostly water

          You quote star trek to justify not going to space? There's a first! :)

          While my comments were meant somewhat in jest, I agree with you to a certain extent. For the purposes of poking around a few rocks on a far away world, robots are by far the more sensible option.
          For the purposes of colonisation, though, the organic bags of mostly water have it for now. Saying that, I don't think we're remotely near the position where colonising mars could be considered a sensible venture.

        • by Bakkster (1529253)

          Seven lives were sacrificed for nothing of value : they never needed to be there.

          Nothing of scientific value, or maybe nothing worth the cost, but engineering/social/political knowledge is being gained with every launch, especially on international projects.

        • The infrastructure cost for humans in space is staggering.

          That's why I keep going on about how important it is to plant a garden as soon as you get there. And only flush after number two. "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down."

        • Space exploration has claimed 10% of its aviators.

          Exploration of the New World in the 4 voyages of Columbus lost probably 20% of their sailors (some 500 men) and half of the ships -- and the diseases they brought home killed around 5 million Europeans! Does this mean that white man was never meant to settle the Americas? Of course not. We're here. It means that exploration and colonization is dangerous. Those 500 sailors were killed in a hurricane. "Don't sail your ships into a hurricane." is the le
      • by Minwee (522556)
        After a few years of walking around on Mars you would get pretty hungry. And thirsty. And you might need to change the air in that spacesuit of yours too.
    • by John Miles (108215) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:10PM (#28796385) Homepage Journal

      Which is clearly not the case based on experiences with the mars rovers and similar devices.

      Ridiculous. Think of one of the most interesting discoveries made by the Phoenix lander -- the frozen condensate that formed on one of the landing struts. A human would have noticed that immediately and been able to analyze it in detail. Conversely, a robotic probe can do only what it's programmed to do. All we can do is stroke our beards and say "Hmm, wonder what that is?"

      When you're not only expecting the unexpected, but hoping for it, you want human boots on the ground. One human mission is easily worth twenty robotic missions.

      Hell, NASA should consider offering one-way trips. They'd have enough volunteers to crash their Web server. Most people aren't doing anything that important or interesting with the rest of their lives, are they? Send one old guy with a shovel, a microscope, and a carbon-monoxide canister, and we'll learn more than we would from the next hundred years' worth of robots.

      • Send one old guy with a shovel, a microscope, and a carbon-monoxide canister...

        Geez! Mars is hostile enough already, and you want to send a canister of poisonous gas along?
      • Send one old guy with a shovel

        Good luck doing that on a Scout budget.

      • by Patch86 (1465427)

        Hell, NASA should consider offering one-way trips. They'd have enough volunteers to crash their Web server. Most people aren't doing anything that important or interesting with the rest of their lives, are they? Send one old guy with a shovel, a microscope, and a carbon-monoxide canister, and we'll learn more than we would from the next hundred years' worth of robots.

        Good news, then, that China has entered the space race! If any modern country could rustle up a suicide mission or two, it's China.

    • > All of the proposed plans are based on the ... assumption that
      > humans can add significant value

      Not really. The cover story says this is all about scientific curiosity regarding our universe, and maybe someday commercial mining. But lurking beneath the surface is the uncomfortable truth that life on Earth has an expiration date.

      This is about extra-terrestrial colonization. That's why we focus so much on discovering liquid water, and that's why eventually humans have to make the trip.

    • I COMPLETELY agree.

      There is no need to send People into space. Yes, some good work was done getting people to the moon, but it wasn't until the last few missions that actual scientists got to go. I would humbly suggest that while a variety of technologies have come from manned space flight, most of the real KNOWLEDGE about the universe has come from robots, satellites, and orbiters. No human being can see as well as the HST. No human being can withstand Mars for as long as the rovers have, using the amoun

      • by he-sk (103163)

        Your point that industrializing space means relying more and more on robots is true.

        But.

        I want to go to space. I want to see the blue marble. I want to walk on the moon and on mars. If I had 20 mil lying around I'd be on the ISS right now. Screw the non-existing scientific value, the excitement of being in space is worth the cost, IHMO.

        I heard that Virgin Galactic plans to offer ballistic trips for 20 grand in the next decade. Sign me up.

        • Cool - go for it - pay Virgin Atlantic to do that. We're talking NASA policy here, which needs to have the greatest information yield per dollar possible - not some rocket propelled rollercoaster ride for adrenaline junkies. That's what Virgin Galactic is for.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jackspenn (682188)
      1. The Soviets used robotics to explore moon, so you did not need humans as far back as the early 70s.
      2. Your flawed assumption fails to take into account the great advancement by sending a person, aka the coolness factor. Sending robots or whatever to wherever is not challenging enough. It lacks adventure and risk that pushes adventurer/explorer in humans.
      3. Why leave your house, why not just sit in your house, make money programming remotely, order pizza and groceries? Because seeing a picture of a flower is
      • 1. The Soviets used robotics to explore moon, so you did not need humans as far back as the early 70s.

        good for them.

        2. Your flawed assumption fails to take into account the great advancement by sending a person, aka the coolness factor.

        Cool is subjective gibberish. It used to be cool to smoke cigarettes. In some countries it still is. Do we put a smoking lounge on the Mars mission? When they get there, will they grow tobacco? Your supposed "coolness factor" does not in anyway disprove his points

        • Because it won't be YOU going to Mars. YOUR experience of Mars would be (necessarily) a mediated one. In which case, you might as well "fake it" and pretend that its real because YOU are not going. Your argument is so clueless, it's astounding.

          You haven't thought through the implications of what you're saying. Why should I climb a mountain, if I can get the exact same neurochemical simulation from drugs and 3D goggles? And what will those poor benighted Africans do after your billion-dollar shipment of w

    • All of the proposed plans are based on the arguably flawed assumption that humans can add significant value in flexibility over current robotic explorers. Which is clearly not the case based on experiences with the mars rovers and similar devices.

      What you're describing is an experiment with no control. In other words, no, it is not "clearly not the case" that humans can do a better job than robots; the only way to find out is to send humans there and compare the results. Asserting that robots can do just

  • by FTWinston (1332785) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:07PM (#28796327) Homepage
    As appealing as "get your ass to mars" seems, I suspect the "flexible" shallow gravity wells option (mining NEOs and the like) would cause the most sweeping changes across industry and society.

    If a space presence is what we really want, then that would seem to (under-informed) me to be the option with the most immediate and obvious financial benefits, and the one most likely to encourage indistrial expansion into space. Expansion of the sort that is most likely to stay.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by MozeeToby (1163751)

      I agree, visiting NEOs is much easier than sending us to Mars and has the possibility of real economic (not just incidental R and D) impact. It would also serve as a test bed if we ever see a rock coming our way and need to do something about it. If we could find a source of rocket fuel that isn't at the bottom of a major gravity well, I would say go there first, but in the meantime visiting and eventually moving NEO would be the highest priority for me.

    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      Anyone have ideas on how to pitch "Flexible Path" as an exciting option to the public? I mean, I personally think asteroid mining, learning to detect potential planet killers, visiting comet cores, and viewing Mars from Phobos [mac.com] would be pretty inspiring, but I'm not sure how to sell it to the public.

      • by SBrach (1073190)
        Yes, there's no safer profession then mining. Especially when you're perched on a snowball whipping through space at a million miles an hour. Woo woo woooooooooo. Safe.
  • by Steve1952 (651150) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:08PM (#28796333)
    The flexible path that would go to shallow gravity well destinations, such as asteroids or the martian moons, makes a lot of sense to me. This lets NASA gradually transition from the international space station to long duration space voyages, while avoiding the big problem of lifting the huge amount of mass needed to enter and return from gravity wells. To show how much simpler the shallow gravity well problem is, consider that efficient, low-power thrusters mounted on a platform similar to the international space station could do the trick. At the same time, this lets us gain access to materials (ice, metals, etc.) present in the space environment, and also lets us do a lot of interesting fundamental science.
  • Go to Mars. Most of us would agree that there are much more beneficial endeavors, probably more profitable as well. But the fact of the matter is nothing else would get as much attention from the general public as going to Mars.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'd go to mars in a second! But I hear the demon population is a bit high on Phobos, and ammo for a BFG is just too expensive these days.

  • Non-definitive list (Score:3, Interesting)

    by StefanJ (88986) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:18PM (#28796497) Homepage Journal

    One project which would be helpful for any sort of Mars exploration would be the establishment of a communication and navigation infrastructure. Maybe a dozen small satellites in polar orbits* with a sort of GPS-lite capability and a store-and-forward messaging capability. Plus two big communication sats with nice big solar arrays and very powerful radio transciever for getting data back to earth. (And forwarding commands to any probe or manned mission that needs it.)

    A near-Earth-system manned mission capability. Take the planned NASA Earth orbit / Moon orbit ship and add a refuelable propulsion / service module. Future versions could have a reactor & radiator, and maybe even a fission rocket motor.

    * Yes, this is a challenge.

  • by wisebabo (638845) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:19PM (#28796517) Journal

    The most important single advance that could help spaceflight, manned and unmanned would be to reduce the cost to LEO. This will require, ultimately, a SSTO (single stage to orbit) launcher. Of course it's tough (remember the X-34? the Delta Clipper?) but that doesn't mean that with new advances in materials (can you say carbon nanotube reinforced composites) it's impossible. Unless we can bring the cost of access to space down by a factor of at least 10 a lot of these dreams will remain just that; dreams.

    After that, new low thrust high specific impulse engines would be very useful along with a compact energy source to power them. VASIMIR sounds promising and maybe magnetic sails (which might have the side benefit of protection against cosmic rays). We'll probably need real nuclear reactors in space like the SNAP program (or the Russian equivalent). Remember the words of an airforce general: "a new plane doesn't make a new engine possible, a new engine makes a new plane possible".

    Ultimately, of course, a space elevator is the best way to go. There was a proposal, I think, of building one for less than $10B by using a "small" elevator to bring the materials gradually up from earth (rather than trying to capture an carbonaceous asteroid to use as a material source/counterweight). Of course we'll need those carbon nanotubes again!

    • The delta-v required to get off Earth is just plain enormous. That's a fact of physics which will NEVER change. What can change is (a) the cost of energy, and (b) how efficiently we can use that energy to escape our gravity well. If you want to make space exploration more feasible you have to do one or both of those two.
    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      The most important single advance that could help spaceflight, manned and unmanned would be to reduce the cost to LEO. This will require, ultimately, a SSTO (single stage to orbit) launcher. Of course it's tough (remember the X-34? the Delta Clipper?) but that doesn't mean that with new advances in materials (can you say carbon nanotube reinforced composites) it's impossible.

      Actually, the Delta Clipper (DC-X) [wikipedia.org] didn't seem too "tough," at least as far as manned space projects go. The only problem it had was an easily-fixed faulty landing gear, and the main reason NASA cancelled it was so that it could focus attention on the much more expensive X-33. The follow-on orbital SSTO program, DC-Y [astronautix.com], was estimated to only cost $5 billion to develop, which would include 4 production vehicles. Hopefully Armadillo Aerospace and Blue Origin (which has hired many of the original DC-X engineers)

    • Why do you require SSTO in order to bring launch costs down? Saying it will be simpler and therefore cheaper is like saying a canoe is a better way to cross the Atlantic than a cruise ship, because it is simpler.
      SSTO requires pretty much everything in the system to be working at the theoretical limits. That will never be cheap. EVER! Even with unobtanium materials you could do a better cheaper job by staging using these new materials.
      Staging is a tried, trusted and reliable technology - what is wrong with i

      • by wisebabo (638845)

        Good point, my only concern with staging is that it (usually) implies throwing away some very costly equipment (or difficult recovery scheme) and adds complexity. Perhaps a air breathing booster rocket that can land on a runway might be a good compromise.

  • by cwiegmann24 (1476667) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:20PM (#28796539)
    We create a huge solar array, big enough to cause a solar eclipse, and position it so it happens every other week or so. It would really freak India out...
  • by starglider29a (719559) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:30PM (#28796705)
    Anything else we do is grave decoration.

    Sending probes or even people to explore Mars, Alpha Centauri or Wolf 359 is a waste if we are wiped out by an asteroid. We have some good theories on how to do it. We need to test them.

    Let's practice while we still have the luxury of time... and failure.
  • by nsteinme (909988)
    The construction of a space elevator will allow humans to get anywhere else in space faster and cheaper. Rocket-based methods are horribly inefficient ways to get to orbit. Payload launch costs of $10,000 or more [futron.com] per pound? You gotta be kidding me. If we don't have the technology for space elevators yet, NASA should be working on that as a top priority.
    • by Patch86 (1465427)

      There's a reason NASA (and the rest) won't commit serious funding to Space Elevators. Essentially, they're too worried it'll fail.

      If you pour $100s of billions into a project, there is just no way you could turn around and say "turns out that we can't do it after all". It's unthinkable. Space Elevators still have some real scientific doubts about how to get them working, and those doubts won't go away without serious research. But NASA can't spend serious money researching it if they think there's a possibi

  • by Theodore (13524) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:40PM (#28796849)

    Go ahead and go, go anywhere and everywhere...
    But actually DO something once you get there, don't just go there to wave your dick around.

    I'd really like to see a good sized radio telescope built on the far side of the moon, complete with relay lines to dishes at the terminus between near and far sides, so there's no accidental reflections from earth off of relay satellites instead.

    Going further out than LEO would be good also...
    I remember reading this PDF of a flight plan from around 40 years ago, where they wanted to send a crew further INTO the solar system, and actually intercept/orbit Venus, using apollo tech.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manned_Venus_Flyby [wikipedia.org]

    How about a small, self sufficient station at L3?
    You'd need a couple of relay sats for comms, but that's a smaller cost than the station.

    Alas, none of this will happen though, because we're too adverse to risk these days, and we wouldn't DARE send someone condemned to death out there instead, it'd de-demonize them (serial killer and first man on another planet?).
    Plus, have you noticed that most of the studies about going into space for long periods of time involve seeing if people can do with limited to no social interaction?
    Yeah, most of US can, but the ones they trust to send up there, CAN'T!
    So we gotta settle for unmanned probes.

    So fire off at least one every month.
    Pick something to study: moon, planet, propulsion tech, comm tech, interstellar phenomenom (this one will take time and would need to be fast).
    And if you need some tech to make sure it works (such as an RTG), and people complain about it, ignore them with extreme prejudice.

    And more space telescopes!
    Seriously, we have barely a handful pointing outwards, but probably hundreds (classified, guess, and hope you're not accurate) looking back down?

    • There are thousands of L3 points in the Solar System. All of them are unstable. L4s and L5s are stable, so placing a station at Earth-Moon L5 (EML5) or Sun-Earth L5 might be worthwhile... if we could get that whole "self sustaining" thing working.
  • The modern national space program like what we've seen recently with the Shuttle was flawed from inception due to Pentagon-mandated low-orbit satellite retrieval capability, cost-prohibitive quick-turn launch requirements and catastrophic reoccuring heat tile failure. NASA for the most part didn't have a problem getting us there, they had a problem getting us back. Arguably, I think the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity provided the biggest return on investment NASA has committed in the last
  • One might think the best course of action would be to establish a lunar coloney that could be used as an output for any future missions further out into space. However, the lunar coloney would be subject to the impacts [wikipedia.org] from space rock. The moon is constanly being hit by micro-meteorites and until we can find some way to block these types of impacts, i cant see any type of installtion lasting very long. I still belive that the lunar coloney would be the best starting point for any future space exploration. J

    • Bury it. A metre or two of lunar regolith would stop anything that wasn't going to destroy the station anyways, and do a fine job of cutting back on the radiation hazards. Add a solar powered maglev rail launcher, and you're in business.
  • I say we beat the Buggers to Ceres.
  • railgun (Score:3, Interesting)

    by strack (1051390) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @01:05PM (#28797185)
    what we need, is a huge ass railgun that shoots telephone pole shaped slugs, filled with water, oxygen, or whatever raw materials are needed, up to a space station in geostationary orbit. a space station with a cnc machine, and some manufacturing capability, so you can create new parts for said space station.
  • Forget government, let NASA play it's space game and retire the shuttle, government will never do space right.

    Space needs to be done by the public, companies, individuals, etc need to be permitted to go into space without fighting NASA for each flight.

    Burt Rutan [ted.com] discusses this issue fairly well, I'm with him, private industry and people will be the viable plan for future spaceflight, forget the government.

    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      Burt Rutan [ted.com] discusses this issue fairly well, I'm with him, private industry and people will be the viable plan for future spaceflight, forget the government.

      I'd personally rather see the government acting as a customer. This seems to have worked pretty well in the realm of unmanned science missions, with NASA giving money to private industry and academic institutions to build probes and instruments, and then buying a commercial space launch. I'm not sure why (besides congressional politics) NASA is so opposed to doing something similar with human spaceflight.

  • by N1tr0u5 (819066) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @01:32PM (#28797507)
    Is there a organization dedicated to exploring and inhabiting all the different environments of the world and developing materials to make it easier? I'd fund them before I funded NASA.

    All the money we spend on getting off our planet could be used to further explore the planet and the advancements made applied to space travel. If we could develop materials, method, and technology to the point that we could easily live on the bottom of the ocean (extreme pressure and temperature), I think it might be easier to get that same rig adjusted to work on Venus. If we can easily inhabit the (Ant)Arctic, I think it may be easier for us to check out that same tech on Mars, etc. If we can get a self sustaining flying environment, it might be worthwhile to send it to Jupiter.

    In addition, someone else mentioned that it would be impossible to get the materials back from wherever we went. Well, I'm sure exploration of our own Earth and the ability to safely occupy any of it's environments would give us a wealth of resource exploiting opportunities, or at least experience in resource harvesting under adverse conditions, which is what we would need to get those resources from whatever planet/moon we visited in the first place.

    You gotta crawl before you walk. Putting man on the moon was novelty, and now we are too hung up on going back. Putting man on the bottom of the ocean in a self sustaining environment has practical applications. In addition to the research and advances from getting there, I'm pretty sure the bottom of the ocean is safe from any cataclysmic event save tectonic motion, which provides another level of certainty that our species survives things that may otherwise destroy most life on the planet. /ramble
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by mtemmerm (1604279)
      Actually working from the bottom of the ocean perspective isn't that bad an idea to do both earthbound science and the preparation of space exploration a favor. You'd find hundreds of unknown lifeforms at the bottom of the ocean, the conditions there are harsh like an ET environment (no air, pressure challenges, isolation to name a few). You'd have to be forced to engineer solutions to new and interesting problems. NASA should definitely start thinking about using deep seafloor bases. They could use it as a
  • is this about science, or about putting humans into space and in particular, on another planet (for good)? If NASA is to be ONLY about science, then we would be smart to just push private industry for rocket launches and then simply fund other companies to build sats. I think that would likely be the death of Space and ultimately, Science in America.

    OTH, if we say that we are going to put man in other locations in space, then it makes sense to have a diversified rocket launch capability. That means that w

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