Saturday, December 24, 2005

NASA and Dreams of Space

This blog entry concerns a dream for a bright future for the human race. Though, first, there is a need for some new comments on some old business.

Old Business: Merry Christmas

I hope that all of my readers enjoy a very merry Christmas.

In an earlier blog I covered the "War on Christmas" -- or, more accurate, an attempt by certain people to promote hostility between individuals because this, to them, seems to be what the sprit of Christmas requires.

I see no reason to be concerned with saying Merry Christmas. If we can name one of our most important institutions after a divine entity that does not exist, then we can name a holiday after a divine entity that does not exist.

These blog entries are heavily concerned with what does and does not count as “justice”. Yet the concept of “justice” comes from the name of an ancient Roman goddess, Justita. She was the blind-folded lady with a sword and a set of scales for weighing evidence. Each of us can be concerned with justice without adhering to the ancient Roman pantheon. Similarly, each of us can enjoy a holiday on December 25th called Christmas without being Christian.

Besides, it is good to have a season where we focus on peace, harmony, and good will. Some people would rather use the season as a call to arms to do war against those who do not accept their religion, but let’s try to ignore those warriors, at least for a day.

Old Business: Spying on Americans

MSNBC is now reporting that Bush’s spying was not a matter of listening in on the phone calls of individuals where captured phone numbers revealed a link to al-Queada. Rather, Bush ordered NSA agents to sweep through entire telecommunications gateways for "patterns" that were “suspicious”. Of course, with no judicial oversight, the Bush Administration gets to set its own standards as to what counts as "suspicious".

The Bush defender cries, “Oh, but Bush is only looking for signs of terrorist activity. All that he is trying to do is keep us safe.”

Are you sure? How do you know this? Even if he is, what if the next President has a lower sense of self-control or a stronger sense of his own importance in the world, such that he expands these searches? What protections do we have against these possibilities? Can you imagine what Dick Cheney or Karl Rove would define as a "reasonable" case for evesdropping on Americans? No . . . wait . . .

New Business: Space Development

Since this is Christmas Day, I an going to discuss something about hope for the future, rather than the wrongs that people are committing today.

Congress has passed the NASA Authorization Bill for the next two years, so this would be a good time to talk about space.

I have already written on the value that I think can be found in space development in the September 18th blog entry “”.

In that blog, I also mentioned that I thought NASA could better fulfill this objective, not by launching its own missions into space, but by offering prizes to those private entities that met certain objectives. This follows the model established by the X-Prize, a private contest to pay a $10 million prize to the first company to send a three-person rocket to the edge of space (100 kilometers above the surface) twice in two weeks.

On this front, I am pleased to discover that Congress has authorized NASA to have $50 million worth of prizes available in any fiscal year, and increased the size of any given award above the current $250,000 limit. The new bill actually does not establish an individual prize limit (beyond the limit for the sum of all prizes in a year), which should make it easier to develop some more significant contests.

After all, the X-Prize was for $10 million, and look at what it brought us? It spawned a new industry devoted to delivering paying customers to the edge of space.

Ultimately, I would like to see NASA’s capacity to offer prizes expanded further.

Compare a system where NASA itself builds a probe and sends it off to discover Pluto, or to sample rocks on Mars, or to look for ice buried under the surface of the Moon, to NASA offering a prize.

NASA could spend $500 million on such a probe. Or, NASA could offer a set of five $100 million prizes to any team that delivers a certain set of data on five different Kupyer objects, five $100 million prizes on any team that delivers data on the surface of Mars at any of five specified locations, and five $100 million prizes to any team who delivers data on five different locations on the moon – data that would be useful in determining if ice was present and in what quantities.

I would like the caveat that no more than 2 prizes can go to any 1 team, to give the second and third place teams a chance to be rewarded for their efforts a well.

We would realize three benefits of such a system.

(1) NASA would only pay for success. Are you tired (as I am) of having NASA spend $500 million on a machine that plunges head-first into the Martian landscape without sending us back any of the data that we paid to collect? If NASA offered prizes, it would never again pay for a machine that does not bring back any data. It will only pay for the data.

(2) The prizes would stimulate engineering success. The X-Prize people did not care how one completed the task of acquiring the capacity to put people into near-earth space twice in two weeks. It only cared about whether the invention worked. As such, 25 different teams threw their engineering capability into 25 different systems. If NASA were offering prizes for collecting data, I would also expect engineering teams to be experimenting with some new and exciting options. We may well discover that we are exploring space in ways that NASA itself never would have thought of.

(3) The prizes would also stimulate entrepreneurial success. The problem with NASA missions is that they do not involve the people. It involves a group of engineers in a clean room and a group of scientists sitting around computers, with the people fed scraps in terms of the occasional pretty picture. However, any team competing for one of these prizes will have the freedom to expand their mission in ways that engage the public – in ways that allow for public participation, for a fee.

Whether it is by corporate sponsorships or having a company logo on the side of the craft, or private participation through the internet, you and I would be able to participate in the development of space, and not just watch from the sidelines. The entrepreneurial inventiveness of these teams may also come up with forms of public participation that NASA itself never would have dreamed possible.

One of the advantages of this is that we get a lot of space development without spending tax money. We will see private money going into space development, and people trying to find more and better ways to draw in more and more private funds.

Rich Peoples’ Toys

There are those who complain about rich people buying expensive space toys for huge lump sums of money that could otherwise go into solving the problems of Earth. When I hear about these rich people buying tickets to go to the edge of space or to spend a week on the space station, I have a slightly different perspective.

I imagine the local PBS television station having its fund raiser, offering to send the person who makes a certain minimum donation a book, a DVD collection, or some other keepsake.

The future of the human race rests in space, and it needs money. I see these space tourist agencies as making claims like:

For a $200,000 contribution (or less) to the future of the human race, we will provide you with a few minutes of weightlessness on the edge of space. If you make a $20 million contribution to the future of the human race, you will get 1 week on the international space station. And, for a donation of $100 million, we will send you out on a trip to the moon and back on a free return trajectory, where you will be the first person since the Apollo 17 Astronauts to personally see the far side of the moon.

Do not misunderstand – unlike the local PBS station, these are for-profit companies. Yet, they are still for-profit companies investing in an industry on which the future of the human race may well depend. If rich people buying these products will induce companies to invest in this industry, then I see no reason to object.

What would it take to actually land on the surface of the moon?

NASA says that it will cost $104 billion. SpaceDev says that it could cost under $10 billion.

So, what would happen if NASA said that, instead of investing $104 billion on a lunar base, NASA instead would pay $10 billion each to the first company to put a person on the moon, leave him there for a week, and bring him back to earth, and $5 billion for each of four follow-up trips, and was willing to pay 2 sets of prizes to 2 sets different teams?

We would have 2 lunar bases, NASA would not pay a dime for failure, there would be no cost overruns (who here really thinks that NASA will not encounter problems where these expenses will end up being a lot higher than $104 billion), the tax payers would save $54 billion that they could then spend on other projects, and we would have a lunar development industry, rather than a government moon base.

Lives at Risk

Of course, there is the issue that space development is too dangerous – that people might die. We can’t ignore this fact.

Yet, as we leave this dream and return to reality, we find we are remembering over 200,000 people who died in a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, that over 2100 Americans and 30,000 Iraqis have died in the American invasion there, Hurricane Katrina, the Pakastani earthquake that killed over 70,000, suicide bombers, terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction, and a possible bird flu pandemic, among other risks.

Maybe, going into space is not such a dangerous option after all.

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