[Note: As a bit of a preface to this repost from a usenet group, I wanted to give a bit of background. I first got interested in the whole commercial space thing when I was 16, mostly through a usenet group I had stumbled on called sci.space.policy. Unfortunately, as time went on, the group’s signal to noise ratio got worse and worse. Things were still survivable when I got back from my mission in 2002, but have slid rapidly since then, with most of the old regulars having moved on. I haven’t given up 100% on usenet, but due to the awful S/N ratio, I’ll typically just google to see if certain specific individuals have posted anything interesting lately. With Henry Spencer gone, I’m down to just a handful of people on there whose posts I look for (Monte Davis, Jorge Frank, and Derek Lyons). Every once in a while, I’ll stumble across a gem that reminds me why I haven’t completely turned my back on usenet, such as this one from Monte Davis a few days ago]
There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly at Space Cynics about ISS, its suitability for microgravity science, and the utility of microgravity research and development in general. Today, most people who have been following the program agree that the ISS has been a bit of a debacle, and most agree that the way ISS is run and the existing space transportation situation pretty much preclude any real commercially useful microgravity research from happening. However, Monte makes some useful points about the situation that while I’ve made similar points in the past, bear reemphasis. Here are Monte’s comments (with my emphasis):
(Derek Lyons) wrote:
>Which, in my book, makes the person who thinks that’s a condemnation
>of the Shuttle… an idiot. Because that was the goal of the Shuttle
>from Day One, to work with a space station.
The seemingly neat circularity emerged after the fact. With cheaper
and more frequent access, the station could have been built soon and
cheap enough, equipped and staffed adequately, to actually *do* the
kinds of research originally promised.
But with the successive delays and downscoping, that has never been
possible. Unfortunately, that has discredited the whole premise and we
get the “all we do is go around in circles in LEO” mindset, and a
vague sense that “they tried all that free-fall science and nothing
panned out” — when in fact, all but a few token bits of science have
been squeezed out by the demands of just getting it “complete” before
the oldest parts reached the end of safe service life.
(NB: I’m not claiming the most hyped promises — the giant protein
crystals, perfect ball bearings, breakthroughs in undersatnding
free-fall physiology etc — would have paid off; I’m saying there’s
never been a chance of finding out with the very limited equipment and
even more limited time available for them).
It’s as if I’d tried to build a house on a mountaintop using a
Lamborghini to carry materials and workmen. Surprisingly, the house
ends up a lot more expensive, less spacious and well-equipped than I’d
hoped… and I conclude “well, that proves a house on a moiuntaintop
is a dumb idea.”
While as Monte says, the fact that we haven’t even really had a chance to try doesn’t prove that microgravity research will ever produce real benefits, it does mean that there is a chance if things are done differently that we might get better results. There are plenty of challenges out there facing large-scale microgravity research and manufacturing, particularly due to the snail’s pace of progress when compared to terrestrial approaches that try to eliminate the need for microgravity. But I think one of the hopeful things that could come from the latest wave of commercial space endeavors is an environment much better suited towards real research and development. Between suborbital microgravity services (from existing players like Up Aerospace, and hopefuls like XCOR, Armadillo, us at Masten, etc) in the nearer term to commercial stations and free-flyers like what Bigelow is trying to do, things are starting to move in a direction where the rapid iterations that good science needs can become possible.
That doesn’t mean it will work, but it does mean that this time we’ll actually get to find out one way or the other.