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Space United States Science

White House Panel Seeks Input On Spaceflight Plans 224

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 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 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&wumpus-cave,net> 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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?

  • 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 eln ( 21727 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:12PM (#28796417)
    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 CannonballHead ( 842625 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:18PM (#28796499)
    Why make humans go there before it's ready for humans to inhabit though?
  • by jackspenn ( 682188 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:19PM (#28796523)
    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 not the same as seeing a flower, touching it and not to mention the unexpected, like running across a bee or humming bird.
    4. To remove the adventure/explorer/risk aspect of space exploration makes not sense to me.
    5. Finally having somebody from Japan, America and Russia walk on Mars is more of a bonding experience then landing a droid built in those various countries on Mars.

    I guess my point is only people who lack vision, guts and balls only want to use robots.

  • by melikamp ( 631205 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:20PM (#28796525) Homepage Journal

    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.

  • 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 east coast ( 590680 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:22PM (#28796571)
    I would agree that the moon should be first. But to claim that it's the same is foolish.
  • 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.

  • 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.

  • by nsteinme ( 909988 ) <nsteinme@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:34PM (#28796763)
    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 Xin Jing ( 1587107 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:41PM (#28796855)
    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 20 years. Space exploration is a business, and every time you have an orbiter burn up due to a lingering design problem - no matter how cool it is to EVA and pilot a spacecraft - you set the support (ie taxpayers) back. MER took the same form factor, packed in more science return, and left Earth and is presently exploring another planet from it's surface. I'm not saying humans shouldn't be in space, or that scientific achievements haven't been realized. Given the cost, dangers and complexity of putting a person in space versus a robot, a sensable direction begins to emerge. No one except perhaps the designers will mourn for a robot that burns up on entry because of heat shield failure or is destroyed on impact because the parachute fails to open.
  • 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.

  • by PitaBred ( 632671 ) <slashdot AT pitabred DOT dyndns DOT org> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @12:52PM (#28797021) Homepage
    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...
  • Third scenario (Score:3, Insightful)

    by voss ( 52565 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @01:01PM (#28797121)

    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 child support. So my choices are stay here and give all my money to someone else or hop on your ark ship and go someplace where ill have land and can do whatever I want.
    Where do i sign up?"

  • by Crudely_Indecent ( 739699 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @01:03PM (#28797161) Journal

    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 aiming lower so that their failures aren't so colossal.

  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) on Thursday July 23, 2009 @01:16PM (#28797319) Journal

    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 Anonymous Coward on Thursday July 23, 2009 @02:40PM (#28798265)

    Columbia was destroyed due to events that occurred on Earth: a debris strike during launch, followed by reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

    Challenger was destroyed due to events that occurred on Earth: a flaw in the design of the SRBs.

    Apollo 1 was destroyed due to events that occurred on Earth: turns out filling the capsule with pure O2 wasn't the best idea.

    All 17 astronauts who have lost their lives in a NASA spacecraft did so because of events that occurred on Earth.

    It would seem that Earth, for now, is not meant for fragile organic bags of mostly water. Once we manage to get people into space, though, we're just ducky.

  • by hardburn ( 141468 ) <hardburn&wumpus-cave,net> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @03:19PM (#28798823)

    What you get with a manned space program over focusing on more specific problems is side benefits which are difficult to quantify before hand. I could list off some potential benefits, but I have a feeling you've both heard them all before and will pass them off as too abstract or theoretical. Further, it will be woefully incomplete, both because of known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

    If we're going to stick to the abstract anyway (and at this point, we have no choice), then it is sufficient to say that any exercise to push the limits of abilities will provide benefits completely unforeseen at the start, and that a manned space program represents the pinnacle in what we can do in pushing frontiers for the foreseeable future.

    This, I believe, is the under-appreciated crux of Kennedy's statement.

  • by hardburn ( 141468 ) <hardburn&wumpus-cave,net> on Thursday July 23, 2009 @04:28PM (#28799763)

    Then which do you think is more likely to pay off, in terms of that summed value: Mars exploration, or (for example) the eradication of poverty? It would take a pretty damn amazing side-benefit from a Mars trip to outweigh the benefits I'd expect from eradicating poverty, or cancer, or unsustainable environmental pollution.

    Which would be relevent, if anybody had a good idea on how $200 billion could be used to eradicate poverty, or even ten or a hundred times that. We do, in fact, have lots of ideas on using $200 billion to go to Mars.

I've got a bad feeling about this.