Death by a Thousand Cuts

by: Ken Murphy, guest blogger

The space field never ceases to amaze me. By day I work in a bank doing asset-based lending, and for the last two years I’ve been the airplane stooge, I mean underwriter/analyst. By any measure the U.S. airline industry is a mess, and I just got back from a two-day conference that did little in my mind to dispel that perception. Right now we’re watching the hedge and private equity funds dive into the water to join the bloodbath. But as screwed up as the airline industry is, it gives me nowhere near the level of heartburn that the space industry does.

Today’s dose of heartburn comes courtesy of two articles, one by Gregg Easterbrook entitled “It’s the Earth, Stupid” which I found at Slate and will get to in a moment, and another by Robert Zubrin, “The Vision at Risk” which arrived today in Monday’s print edition of Space News.

Now I have to admire Mr. Zubrin’s article overall, but must nevertheless mark strong disagreement with one of the early contention’s, in which he sets up three points in an editorial by Dr. Paul Spudis in the December 27th Washington Post in order to refute them.

The first point, as a reason to give a strong near-term focus to the Moon is “First, that studying lunar [sic] cratering will allow us to understand the processes of mass extinctions on Earth”, which he refutes as “Argument one is false because the Moon’s lower gravity gives it a lower impact rate than the Earth, and it’s lack of an atmosphere or biosphere makes impossible any studies of the relevant post-impact terrestrial phenomenon that cause and shape mass extinction.”

It is in fact true that the Moon receives a lower number of overall hits than the Earth due to its lower gravity (and also because of it’s smaller cross-section, as well as the weird gravitational warps created by its close proximity to Earth, points I’m sure to make when discussing asteroids with the general public), there is nonetheless no better place to study the terrestrial impact flux than on the Moon. The Earth herself is too capricious and ever-changing. Mars is out where Jupiter provides a much larger impact, so to speak, on object trajectories. Venus is even worse with its volcanism, and Mercury is too close to the Sun.

So if you are going to study the crater record there is NO better place to do it than the Moon, and Dr. Spudis and I are in 100% agreement on this. My reason is that there is this weird astrophysical theory that in the Sun’s approximately 225-250 million year elliptical orbit around the galactic core it moves up and down through the galaxy’s equatorial plane where the bulk of the material is, something like a carousel horse. This theory defies everything I understand about orbital mechanics. From the z-axis perspective it looks like an ellipse, from the x/y-axis plane it looks like a sine wave. The period between the passes through this plane is guesstimated at about 30-35 million years, or about 60-65 million years for the full sine wave, or about a cycle per quarter-turn around the galactic core.

I strongly disagree with this theory, because my envisionment of the Sun’s trajectory is more like wobbling within a tubular envelope defined by its ellipse. Not a perfect ellipse, but never really far away from one either. What gives this theory currency is the spooky pattern being found as we accumulate confirmed craters here on Earth. So while I disagree with the carousel-horse bouncing through the galaxy’s equatorial plane, I have no better explanation and can’t dismiss it because the historical record is there.

Thus, I believe it is important to go to the Moon to look at the crater record (what I call sizing, counting and dating). Not just to look at the -composition- of the impactors, but also to see if there is in fact periodicity in the crater record, and if there is where are we in the cycle?

This is pretty important stuff, because it ties directly in to the security aspect of the Vision for Space Exploration. We do need to know more about the threat of Potentially Hazardous Objects, both nearer the Sun and farther away, because asteroids DO NOT CARE if they destroy our civilization. This makes them orders of magnitude more serious than terrorists because terrorists at least have a fount of hate that can be understood by the human mind and addressed. Asteroids and comets have no hate, they just don’t care. The ballistics were worked out aeons before we hairless apes came along.

So I think Robert’s dead wrong on this one. His next point of refutation is that “Second, that Lunar activities will provide us with practice for exploration of “other worlds” which he refutes with “Argument two is false because while we can practice for operating on other worlds on the Moon, we can do much more in that line at 1/1000th the cost in the Artic”.

Again, I disagree. This time because of vacuum discipline. Others strongly disagree with this point, but I nevertheless maintain that nothing substitutes for the dread paranoia of the vacuum on the other side of the space suit/craft than actually being in vacuum. This can be done in space, and on the Moon. It cannot be done in the artic, nor underwater, no matter how good the pretend factor. In this case Dr. Zubrin’s point about the cost contradicts one of his assertions in the article, while also supporting my position, as I’d rather spend a couple of million dollars finding out if some clumsy idiot is going to kill themself on the Moon than several tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for them to crack their faceplate on Mars. It’s cold, but that’s my sang-froid opinion. Ultimately, I believe we will use a mix of arctic stations, underwater stations, space stations, and Lunar stations in preparing for the trip to Mars to give us the solid experience base. Doing less is ultimately folly. (Oh, and partial gravity, giving us momentum and mass movement practice)

Dr. Zubrin’s last point for refutation is “Third, the Moon base will provide an economic return by enabling the development of lunar [sic] solar power stations that will beam electricity back to Earth.” His reply is that “Argument three is false because a pholtovoltaic panel only receives twice the solar flux as it does in Arizona, and all of its increased output would be lost in the inefficiencies of the transmission system. Thus the useful output of a photovoltaic power station on the Moon would only be equal to one on Earth, while logistics costs to support it would be 100,000 times as great”.

True, but going back to the Moon to build PV power stations solely for Earth is a silly idea. It makes far more sense to build a network of relays and beam the power to Lunar robots (either autonomous or tele-operated), or practice beaming it to an L-1 station, so that when we finally get our act together and start building PV arrays in geostationary orbits we’ll have a solid base of experience for doing so. (Moon to L-1 is about twice the distance of GEO to Earth, and we can practice with PV arrays prepared with different doping mixes to maximize their efficiency under raw Solar conditions). Amongst a whole host of other activities.

So again, I think Dr. Zubrin’s arguing the wrong point, and he pretty much clinches it for me when he states “That goal can only be humans to Mars” later in the article. No, it’s humans spreading out to the Solar system and Mars is but one of the destinations. One that will be almost as important as our Moon and, in my opinion, the asteroids out to the belt. But Mars is neither THE destination nor THE goal. The goal is for humanity as shepherds of this good Earth to take her life to the Solar system and the stars (and to understand life that may exist out there beyond our current ken), and the destinations are beyond counting.

Dr. Zubrin is fundamentally right, though. The Vision is at risk, though perhaps not in the ways he perceives.

Other perceptions that give me heartburn are those of Mr. Easterbrook, who takes a rather derisive look at the NASA budget. He dismisses the STS out of hand as a clunker, then lumps in the space station with guilt by association. He asserts that the moon-base [sic] project will benefit only NASA bureaucrats and aerospace contractors (wait, based on what we’re being spoon-fed it is looking that way, isn’t it? Thank goodness for the good work of Dr. Schoewengerdt over at NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program [be sure to order a free copy of Spinoff while you’re there]). There’s a long diatribe on the uselessness of the space station which is, admittedly, mostly useless in its current configuration. What is is not what has to be, thank goodness, and as we develop our launch architecture beyond the STS to support the station we can develop the opportunity to send more people up there, though NASA’s limit of 12 dockings per year isn’t helpful.

Having pharmaceutical researchers actually sitting at the lab benches running and re-running experiments to gather data for analysis, not spending three years to send up a black box, but rather planning each days research based on prior results. Ultimately the space station would make a near-Earth transit node to an L-1 station on the way to the Moon, but it will be superceded by a series of stations and free-flyers more convenient in inclination to the launch sites. Having 85% of the Earth’s land mass visible over time is a pretty useful function, and the delta-V to L-1 is indifferent to the starting LEO inclination so once again we’ll have good practice when those stations come about.

I most strongly disagree with Mr. Easterbrook’s assertion that the Moon is not interesting, “That’s because the Apollo missions found little to suggest that the moon [sic] is interesting, except to geology postdocs”. That is wrong, wrong, wrong. I mean it, it’s a wrong conclusion to so cavalierly throw out there. Gregg may not have access to the Lunar Library like I do, but that’s still no excuse for such an ignorant assertion. There is a great deal of commerce to be done between here and the Moon, and a Moon base can be a valuable component of that. I’ve also posted twenty-five good reasons to go to the Moon below to give you an idea of the possibilities.

Ultimately Mr. Easterbrook makes some points that do need to be considered. He buys in to the “Moon as a crappy place to practice for Mars” meme, but his reasoning is actually sound, in that the mission to Mars will most likely be launched on a direct trajectory from low-Earth orbit (LEO) as the current CEV architecture seems to be taking the same approach, short-sighted and detrimental to commerce though that is. In the short-term direct trajectory missions are less-expensive, but deny us the opportunities possible with a sensible transportation architecture between here and the Moon.

He goes on about NASA’s slash-and-burn of science (I would have taken more of a culling approach, but I do think that NASA science does need to be re-prioritized) to get to his conclusion, that NASA should be studying the Earth and Sun. I guess he’s familiar with NASA’s Living With a Star program. I do agree about the Sun, but strongly disagree about the Earth. I think that NASA’s gaze needs to be upward (aeronautics) and outward (space) in its administration of space activities. I believe that space capabilities need to be better distributed throughout the executive agencies, such that the USGS is the one doing land observation and NOAA is doing the Ocean and Atmosphere observation. I believe that some of the more esoteric deep space astrophysics is better housed in the halls of American academia. I believe that NASA needs to poke us along in the study of asteroids. Observation of the Sun is important, though perhaps the operators of satellites could establish a collective organization to do so in order to help protect their assets. NASA should be (and is) studying it for fundamental knowledge, just as the military is studying it to register potential security capability threats. NASA cannot and should not carry the entire burden themselves, just because these activities occur in space.

I’ve got to go take some antacids, but I look forward to comments below, and thank you for your time.


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7 Responses to Death by a Thousand Cuts

  1. Anonymous says:

    I understand that you’d need ground truth for lunar impactors’ composition, but surely a satellite hi-res surveyor would be doing the sizing and counting..?

    [Easterbrook] dismisses the STS out of hand as a clunker, then lumps in the space station with guilt by association.

    There is a significant association, if not exactly his: with STS as a gating factor for construction, no large space station — not Freedom or Alpha or ISS — was ever going to happen anywhere near reasonable schedule and budget. (Ditto for the grander SDI fantasies.)

    As with so much that has (and hasn’t) happened since 1981, the problem was the pretense that we had solved CATS on the first iteration.

  2. Sigivald says:

    because asteroids DO NOT CARE if they destroy our civilization

    True. Their undying hatred for Earth and their cold, calculating lust for (self) destruction are far, far separated from our meagre civilization.

    They’d be out to get the Earth even if it was empty, because of their eldritch evil.

    Well, maybe.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Zubrin is going to oppose anything that doesn’t support HIS version of going to Mars. Past behaviour by him has shown this.

    Easterbrook is a long time opponent of manned space flight and the STS. He is very interested in environmental issues (and writes well on them), hence his call for more Earth missions. He also acts ignorant of the poilitics of NASA, and is certainly ignorant of basic rocket science. (i.e. neither shuttle was destroyed in an explosion as he said in the Slate piece.)

    His attack on Lunar bases as not practical as a stopping place for Mars missions also betrays ignorance of NASA’s plans, or a lie to advance his thesis. NASA has never proposed a lunar base as a staging area for Mars missions, but rather as a place to try out equipment and procedures.

    In any case, both contribute little to the real debates in the political halls.

  4. Karl Hallowell says:

    “I strongly disagree with this theory, because my envisionment of the Sun’s trajectory is more like wobbling within a tubular envelope defined by its ellipse. Not a perfect ellipse, but never really far away from one either. What gives this theory currency is the spooky pattern being found as we accumulate confirmed craters here on Earth. So while I disagree with the carousel-horse bouncing through the galaxy’s equatorial plane, I have no better explanation and can’t dismiss it because the historical record is there.”

    Why do you consider these two viewpoints incompatible? The ellipse is embedded in the galactic plane and the carousel-horse bouncing is contained inside that tubular evelope.

    anonymous, you are neglecting that the Shuttle hasn’t been used as intended. It should have a much higher launch rate (on the order of 40 launches a year). That alone would drive prices down per launch. It wouldn’t make space launch “cheap”, but it would have significantly lowered the costs of missions that used the Shuttle.

    In hindsight, I don’t see how that many launches could be sustained. NASA just doesn’t have the demand. And the political dynamics seem geared to creating barely functional programs since for contractors that’s where the best bucks for effort lie.

    Finally, I think it’s a bad idea to compare asteroids to intelligent antagonists. Maybe human (or other) agents can’t currently do the sort of damage that a large asteroid can do, but there are more of them, they can adjust their tactics to penetrate your defenses, and their capabilities increase as technology improves.

    My take is that in fact a space program is an excellent idea because it reduces the risk of extinction from human destructiveness.

  5. William Kurwitz says:

    This is a typical Gregg Easterbrook drive-by space policy article. He often makes some decent points, but he always demonstrates his fundamental misunderstanding of the issues. Clearly he never bothers to actually pick up the phone and talk to people who work in the field. You can agree with him 100% and still think that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s writing about.

    For instance, by belittling the JWST telescope and praising the Terrestrial Planet Finder he demonstrates some immense ignorance. He takes a cheap shot at NASA implying that it is named after a “bureaucrat” and this is perfect, because it is a bureaucratic program.

    But that’s a lousy cheap shot. JWST may be mis-named, but James Webb was probably the most astute leader that NASA ever had. Not just a bureaucrat.

    More importantly, JWST is a high priority project for the scientific community, much higher priority than the Terrestrial Planet Finder. It is NOT just a bureaucrat’s dream. What does Gregg Easterbrook know that the nation’s astrophysicists do not? Why is he smarter than the National Academy of Sciences committee that declared that this was their highest priority project?

    JWST is intended to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe, particularly the mysterious dark energy and dark matter. Easterbrook seems clueless about this.

    There are lots of other misconceptions in his article as well, such as his claim that NASA rolls out fancy illustrations for its budget. The illustrations were produced about five months ago. And although he claims that NASA has not sent a probe to the moon in over 30 years he forgets about Lunar Prospector. And by his logic, what explains the interest in the moon by China, India, ESA and others?

    One also wonders where he comes up with stuff like this: “Yet the White House has called for construction of a ‘manned’ moon base—there seems no alternative to that phrasing—and the proposed budget includes about $4 billion in initial moon-base funding.”

    What does he mean by “there seems no alternative to that phrasing”? Is he implying that the agency is sexist? Or did he simply write that because _he_ couldn’t come up with an alternative? Here’s one: “human moon base.” And the $4 billion is not “initial moon-base funding,” it is for the CEV and CLV, which are first and foremost a shuttle replacement and will be developed even if the lunar base is shelved.

  6. murphydyne says:

    Yes, anonymous, but we still need ground truth for the dating part. Determining the sequence from overlaps will only get you so far, and here we’re looking for less than a thirty million year degree of accuracy. We’re going to have to go all over the Moon for this, and only people can judge the most relevant sites (like the far side over the near side, since those are all Earth-bound incomings).

    Unfortunately there is a huge amount of association between STS and ISS, and the guys who designed out all of the margins so that the modules could ONLY be launched on the STS should be fired (though with the huge number of layoffs in the industry over the years they probably have been). I’m very disappointed that the idea of building some kind of cradle that can fit within a fairing for launch on another vehicle. I understand about all of the changes in fairing size affecting the Cp vs. Cm and the differential pressure factors on the module element from the differences in the launch profile &c. &c. These should be engineering hurdles, not barriers, and if we’re to wimpy to do it then gosh golly maybe someone else should.

    sigivald, I’ve wondered about their eldritch nature, I’m just glad you didn’t blame it on Cthulhu. I chalk it up to inanimate indifference.

    That’s a good point karl, though that would have to be a pretty sizable or sinusoid envelope to really be bouncng up and down through the galactic equatorial plane (though we DO have to pass through it at least twice during the rotation around the core where the elliptical plane meets the galactic equatorial plane at the ascending and descending nodes). I’ve also considered the mechanism of the greater mass attraction of the galactic arms inducing such a sinusoid motion, though over time that would seem to lead to eventual ejection from the galaxy, which is a really, really scary thought.

    I don’t really think it’s entirely inappropriate to compare asteroids to terrorists. Both are played up in the public’s mind as something that could wipe out our civilization, though only one of the two -really- has the power to do so. Both are, however, security threats, and we really just need a much better census of the objects out there, especially in towards the Sun where we can’t see them, so that we can understand better the real nature of the risk, and thereby conceive mitigants. Same with terrorists. The more you understand where their hatred and incentives are coming from, and applying a little human psychology, the better you’re able to overcome it. The progress in Europe is one hopeful sign in that regard. The IRA and the ETA are seeing different incentives, their greivances are better understood, and they are actually becoming civilized enough to at least talk with.

    I still think of JWST as NGST.

    William, how about crewed or staffed Moon base.

    Again, it just really gives me heartburn when this stuff is paraded about because it really serves no useful end, and is for many people, in the case of Mr. Easterbrook’s article, some of the relatively little input they receive with regards to the U.S. space program. I have to go out and talk to these people as part of my NSS activities and this kind of thing just really doesn’t help, and is even in many ways damaging.

  7. Karl Hallowell says:

    I’m not sure that the motion through the galactic plane is that pronounced. I’ll have to read about it again. My take though is that if you actually ran a model of gravity for an object orbiting through a thin disk shaped piece of matter, you’d quickly generate the sort of orbit that the Sun is thought to follow.

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