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Can Capitalism Send Us to the Stars?

Stephen Maurer, director, IT & Homeland Security Project, public policy | February 2, 2010

When Apollo capsules returning from the Moon hit the atmosphere they radiated more power than the City of Los Angeles.  Think about that. Think how much energy it took to send that tiny capsule into space in the first place.

 Jules Verne wrote stories about firing men into space using cannons.  And that is more or less how all modern societies get there.  The difference, of course, is that our artillery is better thanks to fabulous missile investments in the 1950s.  Presumably mankind would have discovered spaceflight even without the Cold War.  But that moment might have come centuries from now.

Which brings us to the key question: Do we know a cheaper way to do things?  The Obama Administration hopes that a combination of private enterprise and foreign contributions will get NASA back on its old adventurous path. Ever since Apollo, though, Americans have learned that foreign taxpayers are even less willing to invest in space than we are. It’s hard to see why that should change.

That leaves private enterprise, or more precisely the hope that the private sector can find some new and better way to get into space. Look at the ideas, though, and there isn’t much new.  As far as I know, none of the current contenders is proposing a single idea that wasn’t public knowledge in 1945.  “Big dumb rockets” that can be built cheaply because they weren’t originally designed for the military? Air-breathing mother ships to carry rockets above wind resistance?  “Hybrid” solid-liquid rocket engines? They’re all old news.  

Maybe these solutions really will work. Still, there’s an obvious question: If these ideas are so good, why hasn’t someone built them already?  At bottom, the case for privatization depends on believing that NASA has made spectacularly wrong technology decisions — and held to them for over thirty years.  Maybe this is true, and anyone reading this blog will know the epithets (“sclerotic bureaucracy,” “gold-plating,” “military-industrial complex”) that are needed to tell that story.  All the same, it’s a breathtaking claim.

If I were a betting man, I’d like the other story better. Nature bats last. Maybe humans just don’t know yet how to do the thing affordably.  If so, the private sector won’t do any better than NASA.

Comments to “Can Capitalism Send Us to the Stars?

  1. I don’t know if ”capitalism” can send us to the stars, but I know for sure that that moon will be a vacation destination for tourists. Already is for reach people, but soon will become more and more affordable.

  2. Hello Stephen. Interresting article that you wrote. I think per se it is not whether it is Capitalism or Communism as Florence wrote. In my opinion it will take some time until we see some results, that humanity can benefit from. On the other hand I don’t think that China or the Russians will overtake the US in this field.

  3. I think that private enterprises joining in the game is helpful. And, capitalism has sent us to the moon, and it can also send us to the Mars.

  4. i find your comment naive, you may study the history of your country from others point of vue. Easy with the internet, get the UK, French , the Russian or even the chinese version of this important questions

  5. I beleive the next step in Space Exploration goes beyond country borders. It will need to a “mankind” effort. We are already going that way with the International Space Station.

  6. The idea of going back the moon was an excellent idea. It has done exactly what it was meant to do. Get the public talking again on something beyond the day-to-day grind of life. We are in the adolescence of true global awareness. Facebook, iPhones, Carbon credits, and Viagra are going one way; Skype, $100 laptops, Kyoto, and AIDS are going another. They’ll come together at some point. Everything does. Ask Einstein. It’s all a cycle and I’m excited for this decade, but I digress.
    The American generation in charge today looks at the moon and remembers their prime. The age of anything goes. It was a common ground for everyone in the country. It’s not the shiny new toy we all want, but we remember it was fun on some level and at least we stop whining for a second and focus again on the possibilities of what’s in hand. One of my favorite quotes by Arthur C. Clarke is very apropos to the discussion of orbital access. “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”
    2000 was a rough decade for the American psyche, and for the world too. The moon is something we can wrap our heads around. Getting there again would at least mean we got off the couch. We need to stop thinking about bargain hunting for a ‘plane ticket’ that just gets us there cheap. What about the journey?
    When Kennedy spoke so passionately with those hands over the podium I like to think of him as a ‘hitch-hiker’ on the way to the Moon. It was the idea that sparked a journey and everybody was along for the ride. America picked up a lot along the way to the moon. If you don’t believe me go fry an egg then jump on that plush mattress you’ve got in the other room.
    I don’t pray, I’m not a family man, and I wasn’t even alive when we last went to the moon, but the majority of people on the planet right now Do, Are, and Were. This means I’ll never have the same perspective on life as the majority of the people walking the surface of this planet. In 1969, everyone was suddenly on the moon looking back at home, and every perspective found a common ground. Earth. It’s the only one we’ve got and we need to stop taking it for granted. If a second honeymoon is what’ll take to save this marriage I say we take it and to hell with the extra baggage fees…

  7. The issue with launching anything into space is the energy resource – fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, but that’s the only way we have of getting objects into space. Nuclear power is unacceptable because there’s always the risk of an explosion and radioactive particles spread across a vast area. Wind, solar, hydrogen, hydropower, geothermal, etc., to launch an object into space? Not possible due to the laws of physics.

    To get to the stars, an unknown type of energy would have to be found, and ask any physicist if there are any unknown types of energy to be discovered. There are no anti-gravity, teleportation launches of spacecraft in our future.

    So then it boils down to the “cost”, as if printed money was more meaningful that the energy that makes anything possible.

    A contracting engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama made the following points on a forum that’s been discussing Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) for over a decade.

    It’s hard to calculate the cost per pound of deliver to the geosynchronous orbit (GSO), but Futron Corporation is paid by the companies that actually launch satellites to make estimates (

    In 2003, Futron estimated GSO launch vehicles cost per pound at $17,000 (Western) and $7,000 (non-Western). In 2000, the costs were around $12,000 per pound. Low Earth Orbit, (LEO) is much cheaper.

    At $7,000 per pound, it would cost $42 billion to launch a 3,055-ton satellite into geosynchronous orbit, and another $4.2 billion for every refueling run.

    These costs are for UNMANNED objects.

    Many use the argument that because we put a man on the moon we can do anything. Or like the late Napoleon Hill put it, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve”.

    But no one ever came up with a way to make nuclear powered airplanes, which the Air Force tried to build from 1946 to 1961, for billions of dollars. They never got off the ground. The idea was interesting – atomic jets could fly for months without refueling. But the lead shielding to protect the crew and several months of food and water was too heavy for the plane to take off. The weight problem, the ease of shooting this behemoth down, and the consequences of a crash landing were so obvious, it’s amazing the project was ever funded, let alone kept going for 15 years.

    The costs of launching orbital solar arrays, as proposed in the Jan 3, 2003 issue of Science magazine, would be astronomical:

    Orbiting solar arrays could make electricity, convert it to microwaves and then beam that energy to a ground antenna where it would be converted back to electricity. But to make 10 trillion watts of power would require about 660 space solar power arrays, each about the size of Manhattan, in orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth.

  8. The idea of a jet-engine airplane and an internal-combustion-engine car were public knowledge by 1915. In both cases, we see every single year an improvement in fuel efficiency, power, speed, comfort, and safety. Therefore, just because you see a design for a big dumb rocket, and big dumb rockets were around in 1945, doesn’t mean this design has no innovation or potential! It is possible to make vast design improvements in big dumb rockets, just as we have made vast design improvements in internal-combustion-engine cars.

    NASA engineers are not idiots, we can agree on that. But NASA is not in the business of coming up with the best possible way to get humans into space cheaply. It doesn’t hire lots of people to do that, for the most part it doesn’t even pretend to try. The shuttle was an excellent piece of technology at the time, but no one in their right mind would say that it’s still today the best technology that could possibly exist for putting people in space cheaply. For example, my cell phone has a much better and faster computer processor than the space shuttle. NASA continued to use the space shuttle for 30 years because it’s already been designed, tested, and built, not because of an impartial weighing of technological advantages and disadvantages. The Ares rocket is great but we have to keep in mind that it would be politically impossible for NASA to propose anything that had the slightest bit of uncertainty or risk of failure. Not coincidentally, they didn’t, they went with the 100%-certain proven technology.

    NASA is not looking far and wide for cheap ways to put humans in space, and even if it did, who is to say that it would find it? You can’t just hire smart people and expect that every possible good idea will be discovered in a finite amount of time. Again, look at any competitive industry…each company comes up with many good ideas that the other company just didn’t think of.

    Technological advance has not stalled since 1945 or even 1970 in all areas helpful for spaceflight. We can hope that private companies will figure out how to do it and make back their investment with “space tourism” dollars. If that’s not enough, I’d much rather see public money go towards private companies than into NASA’s human spaceflight program, because NASA is not set up with the appropriate goal or funding or incentive structure for risky innovation or for cost-lowering innovation (and it shows). Also, there are many more smart engineers who don’t work for NASA than who do, and the nice thing about competitive enterprise is that the good ideas can come from anyone (or at least, closer to it).

  9. Totally agree with you. I also afraid that the tradition of preparing/training new specialists for NASA will be broken, and once it is gone, it will take way too long to replenish the lost talent. This will set the USA far back behind other countries like China and Russia in Space exploration, and let those take advantage of the created situation.

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