The Problem With Not Having a Manned Space Program

March 5th, 2014
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The United States has the worlds most accomplished manned space program.  Not only has the US sent men to the moon, but for decades the United States was the most capable space-faring nation, launching several missions per year and leading the world in manned space capabilities.  Even the Space Shuttle, for all its expense and flaws, was a highly capable spacecraft.

Today, however, the US has no ability to send humans into space.   China has a limited manned spaceflight program and Russia is now the primary space program for crewed spacecraft.  The US, however, does own a large portion of the International Space Station and is under treaty obligation to provide crew and support to the space station.  To fulfill its need to send crew members to the Space Station, the US must pay the Russian government tens of millions of dollars for a seat in a Soyuz space capsule.

Obviously, this is a pretty embarrassing place to be.  Just 20 years ago, it was NASA coming to the rescue of a floundering Russian space program, when, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia found itself unable to support a full roster of missions to its own space station.  Now the tables are turned, and the US is starting to look more like a fallen superpower.

But there is a more practical and problematic issue that arises with the dependence on Russia for space transportation.  When international tensions flare, as they now are, things become highly uncertain for space access.


Via NBC News:

Russia Crisis Raises Space Station Questions, But NASA Has Options

OUSTON — Thanks to its reliance on Russia, NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a diplomatic roadblock in a project originally made possible by diplomacy: the U.S.-Russian partnership in space exploration.

And if Russia’s confrontation with Ukraine and the West turns into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation, as feared, it could have equally profound and disturbing consequences for space exploration.

This month’s comings and goings at the International Space Station highlight the interdependence of the U.S. and Russian space efforts: Next week, NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins is due to return from the space station aboard a Russian capsule, alongside two Russian cosmonauts. A couple of weeks after that, NASA’s Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.

Under the current arrangement, NASA astronauts cannot get to and from the station without Russian help, due to the retirement of the space shuttle fleet. The ticket price for each astronaut is $70 million, payable to the Russians.

The United States and Russia are not just “joined at the hip” on the space station. Numerous other rocket projects rely on either Russian or Ukrainian space hardware and services. Even U.S. national security satellites are powered into orbit on an American rocket with a Russian-built rocket engine.

What if the Soyuz spacecraft suddenly became unavailable for use by American astronauts, contract or no contract? Would it be the end of U.S. human spaceflight? Would it kick off a new round of extortionary price-gouging, both fiscal and diplomatic?

Well, maybe not.

Moving away from co-dependence

It’s cold comfort that the Russians rely on NASA almost as much as NASA relies on the Russians. If Russia monopolizes up-down transport, the United States essentially controls the only space destination: Russia’s orbital hardware couldn’t function without U.S. electrical power and communications services.

However reluctant the partners may be in such an awkward “space marriage,” it has until now provided an astonishing degree of robustness and flexibility.

Recent developments have brought the space station closer to the point where it could be operated without Russian involvement if necessary. The current crisis provides good reasons to accelerate that shift and even to push for one crucial near-term capability: crew rescue.

Already, two U.S. commercial cargo delivery projects — SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon capsule, as well as Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule — have replaced the justifiably retired space shuttle. European and Japanese robot freighters can also resupply the space station. Even though some parts of the Antares come from Ukraine and Russia, and even though the European cargo freighter must dock at the Russian end of the station, Russia’s cargo monopoly has been broken.

….

 

Granted, the United States and Russia are, to some extent, dependent on each other for operation of the International Space Station. That does not, however, change the fact that the US can’t do much without Russia. At best, it means either country could independently shut things down. Then again, if Russia were to decide it wanted to use the station on its own, it would be hard to do much about it, since we can’t actually get there.

This is yet another reason why the US should accelerate its efforts to return to human space flight. It’s an embarrassment, a disgrace and a diplomatic problem.

The most obvious solution is to use the SpaceX Dragon capsule. It has already flown and has a very good success record. It is intended for human space flight, though it has not yet been used for this purpose and would require additional modification and certifications. To make Dragon a fully functional crewed launch system may necessitate modifying its docking mechanism and would certainly the need for life support and a launch escape system.

dragon-grapple-3NBC has stated that it would take “Several Years” to modify the Dragon Capsule to carry humans. I don’t buy this. It took less time to design the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules from the ground up. In this case, the capsule already exists and already has flown.  The needed systems are either off the shelf or already well understood. It is simply a matter of the will to make it happen and happen soon.

In my own personal opinion, NASA should stop viewing the Dragon capsule as a secondary means of access to space by private contractor and embrace it as the primary platform for US missions to earth orbit, whether by NASA or contractor-organized flights.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 at 7:55 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Culture, Events, Just LAME, Misc, Space. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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30 Responses to “The Problem With Not Having a Manned Space Program”

  1. 1
    Hinge Thunder Says:

    It is sad and sobering to realize that over 50 years ago we sent Alan Shepard on a suborbital hop and today we do not have the capability to do even that. If Russia simply takes it into their heads that they will close off access to Soyuz then everyone but Russia and China will be shut out of access to space. There are those who will say “So what? We need the money (relatively small though it is) for better things (like welfare and contraceptives, presumably).” But it shows just how far this country has fallen as a technological power.


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  2. 2
    Q Says:

    Truely a turn of fortunes, when you think about it. At one time, Russia needed the US to keep Mir from falling into the sea prematurely. Now, the US is dependent on Russia for space access. Now who looks like the fallen power?

    It’s an embarrassment for sure. Meanwhile China is ramping up space flights. The EU or India will be next.

    What the hell happened? It disgusts me.


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  3. 3
    Anon Says:

            Hinge Thunder said:

    It is sad and sobering to realize that over 50 years ago we sent Alan Shepard on a suborbital hop and today we do not have the capability to do even that. If Russia simply takes it into their heads that they will close off access to Soyuz then everyone but Russia and China will be shut out of access to space. There are those who will say “So what? We need the money (relatively small though it is) for better things (like welfare and contraceptives, presumably).” But it shows just how far this country has fallen as a technological power.

    Actually the people in power who thought the US needed the money for other things were really thinking about weapons, even though they may have said welfare (and contraceptives actually saves the government a lot of welfare money).

    The root of the problem though is that manned space flight wasn’t so much done because the people in power thought it a good idea (we never found an application for it other than basic scientific research), but because they thought it a good way to show off to their world the superiority of their ideology, witness all the stunts the Soviets pulled and the fact that US government only cared about Apollo as a way to get back at the Soviets for Sputnik.


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  4. 4
    DV82XL Says:

    Actually it’s a good deal worse than this. Let’s not forget that the original reason that operating in orbital space was considered important was the classic military need to be able to control the high ground. Not only must the US go hat in hand to the Russians to get to the ISS, but more to the point, they have yielded this zone of influence to them.


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  5. 5
    Calli Arcale Says:

    “NBC has stated that it would take “Several Years” to modify the Dragon Capsule to carry humans. I don’t buy this. It took less time to design the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules from the ground up.”

    There are several major differences, but the most important one is money. NASA does not enjoy the kind of congressional support for crewed spaceflight that they did in the 1960s. The three primary contenders for Commercial Crew all could, in theory, get crews to the ISS as early as 2015. But they would need to be more aggressively funded to do that, and NASA would need to be able to fund their side of the mandatory testing activities that have to happen before a ship is allowed to dock to the ISS.

    “In my own personal opinion, NASA should stop viewing the Dragon capsule as a secondary means of access to space by private contractor and embrace it as the primary platform for US missions to earth orbit, whether by NASA or contractor-organized flights.”

    Nice of you to throw CST-100 and Dream Chaser under the bus. At this point, it’s too early to say which of the three will be a better choice. Dragon has a lot going for it, but so do the others, and it would be foolish of NASA to count these chickens before they hatch. That said, NASA is in violent agreement that Commercial Crew (with ideally at least two providers) should be the primary platform for US missions to Earth orbit. That is, in fact, the whole point of the Commercial Crew effort. They explicitly want to replace Soyuz. Sure, Soyuz will still visit ISS, but on exclusively Russian missions. And NASA’s other spacecraft effort, Orion, isn’t oriented towards low Earth orbit. It’s intended for destinations that are presently beyond the reach of the Commercial Crew providers. (Yeah, I know SpaceX talks about sending Dragons to Mars, but that’s a very long ways off. SpaceX is still having single event upsets on their brief cargo runs, a consequence of their decision not to use space-qualified computers; they have a lot of work to do before their systems are reliable enough to carry humans beyond the Van Allen Belts.)

    Now, there is another looming problem with replacing Soyuz that I don’t think people are paying enough attention to. And that is the risk that without NASA subsidizing Soyuz, Russia will abandon their segment of the ISS. On the face of it, that doesn’t seem like a problem. Even if they take their modules away, the US segment is self-sustaining in terms of power and attitude control. The problem is that it is not self-sustaining in terms of propulsion. The only rocket engines on the station are on the Russian segment, and they depend on Progress to refuel. There is nothing in the works to replace this critical function should the Russians abandon their segment of the ISS after their treaty obligations are fulfilled. That actually worries me a bit.


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  6. 6
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Actually it’s a good deal worse than this. Let’s not forget that the original reason that operating in orbital space was considered important was the classic military need to be able to control the high ground. Not only must the US go hat in hand to the Russians to get to the ISS, but more to the point, they have yielded this zone of influence to them.

    Didn’t the Almaz missions show that people were a hindrance to military space missions?

    For the moment at least all any military wants out of space could be done much more cheaply by robotic spacecraft (and that doesn’t look like it’ll change for a couple of decades).


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  7. 7
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    For the moment at least all any military wants out of space could be done much more cheaply by robotic spacecraft (and that doesn’t look like it’ll change for a couple of decades).

    That’s the standard response. The problem is that it takes a lot of time to design, develop and deploy an automated weapons system, and even then we have seen some spectacular failures. Manned missions, particularly if you drop the belt-and-suspenders-it-has-to-be-as-safe-as-sitting-on-the-floor attitude can deploy a whole lot faster and have shown that problems can be compensated for on the fly more effectively. I am talking war footing situations here. That plus there is an inherent mission flexibility with humans in situ than robotics will be able to deliver for some time yet.


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  8. 8
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    That’s the standard response. The problem is that it takes a lot of time to design, develop and deploy an automated weapons system,

    The same can be said for a manned system.

            DV82XL said:

    and even then we have seen some spectacular failures.

    Yes, they do have something of a tendency of making those involved glad they were unmanned.

            DV82XL said:

    Manned missions, particularly if you drop the belt-and-suspenders-it-has-to-be-as-safe-as-sitting-on-the-floor attitude can deploy a whole lot faster and have shown that problems can be compensated for on the fly more effectively.

    If you bring people along you also have to bring along life-support equipment and living space, take the people out and you can launch at least twice as much stuff, probably much more for the same amount of money.

            DV82XL said:

    I am talking war footing situations here. That plus there is an inherent mission flexibility with humans in situ than robotics will be able to deliver for some time yet.

    Robots controlled by humans on the ground (basically no time lag to speak of in cis-lunar space) are also pretty damn flexible.

    If a shooting war reaches space the satellites of both sides will probably end up destroyed very early on anyway so all putting soldiers in space will do is kill the soldiers.


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  9. 9
    Alan(UK) Says:

    A manned space programme means, ‘Low Earth Orbit’. To be more precise, a manned space programme means, low Earth orbit and back again.

    The US did have a manned Lunar programme. It was a long time ago, it was never finished, the US soon lost interest in going to the Moon, and other countries never had any interest in going. That is not to say that it was not a great achievement and some useful science came out of it.

    Next came the ‘Shuttle’. It was intended to do the heavy lifting to get satellites as far as low Earth orbit at low cost because it was reusable. The US was going to corner the market for launching big communication satellites. In addition, it would be able to launch military satellites and bring failed satellites back for repair.

    Unfortunately it turned out that it needed a major overhaul after each flight, it had a poor safety record leading to it being grounded while the problems were investigated. The military version never got built. It only launched a few commercial satellites before getting out of that market. Eventually it was just being used for flights where a manned mission was essential to the operation. It could not be flown unmanned. Basically the US had all the costs, including lives, of a long and successful programme, without the long and successful programme.

    The ISS provided the political imperative to keep it flying. The Hubble provided the PR to justify to the public to keep it flying – the public takes no interest in the doings of the ISS.

    There are only two places for a manned space programme beyond low Earth orbit: the Moon, and Mars. We have been to the Moon and did not want to go back even when we did have the chance. That leaves Mars. It is a long way away and is very large – as big as a planet in fact. It will be even more difficult to get around on Mars than on the Moon – think of the Moon with weather. Mars Rover speeds are not going to work for humans – machines have the patience to crawl on for years.

    Unmanned missions have studied all the planets along with the Sun, comets, asteroids, and indeed the Solar System itself. Many of these missions have been very long term and many go to places where man can never set foot.

    These endeavours are multi-national now. Spacecraft made by one country carry experiments created in another (often several others) and the lot is launched by a rocket from yet another county, sometimes from a site in another. If you do not like having US personnel using someone else’s taxi service, just think of it as ‘outsourcing’.

    Manned space programmes have been a distraction from all the really important work that has been going on – scientific, commercial, and (if you must) military.


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  10. 10
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    If a shooting war reaches space the satellites of both sides will probably end up destroyed very early on anyway so all putting soldiers in space will do is kill the soldiers.

    All valid points however in the end the Russians are there and the Americans are not. Ask any military type (when the mikes are not on) if their are happy with this and I’ll bet they ain’t.

    “We don’t need [old military technology] because [new military technology] is redundant/obsolete, is a conceit that has been assumed several times in the past, along with the claim that it will save lives, and more often than not it has cost lives before the new tech has the bugs wrung out. In the end, the object of war will always boil down to the need to occupy the theater of operation and exert domination by the projection of might, and to date nothing does that better than a soldier, and yes they sometimes die doing it. That’s just the way it is.


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  11. 11
    Anon Says:

            Alan(UK) said:

    A manned space programme means, ‘Low Earth Orbit’. To be more precise, a manned space programme means, low Earth orbit and back again.

    The US did have a manned Lunar programme. It was a long time ago, it was never finished, the US soon lost interest in going to the Moon, and other countries never had any interest in going. That is not to say that it was not a great achievement and some useful science came out of it.

    The US didn’t really have an interest in going to moon, it had an interest in beating the Soviets to the moon.

            Alan(UK) said:

    Next came the ‘Shuttle’. It was intended to do the heavy lifting to get satellites as far as low Earth orbit at low cost because it was reusable. The US was going to corner the market for launching big communication satellites. In addition, it would be able to launch military satellites and bring failed satellites back for repair.

    The original proposal for the Shuttle was that it be a much smaller, fully reusable craft (or set of craft, SSTO is really hard with chemicals) designed for cheap space station resupply (the space station having been launched on an upgraded Saturn V).

            Alan(UK) said:

    Unfortunately it turned out that it needed a major overhaul after each flight, it had a poor safety record leading to it being grounded while the problems were investigated. The military version never got built.

    There wasn’t actually a dedicated military version, though they never launched it from Vandenberg as the Air Force ‘wanted’ to (ignoring that they didn’t want the Shuttle in the first place).

            Alan(UK) said:

    It only launched a few commercial satellites before getting out of that market. Eventually it was just being used for flights where a manned mission was essential to the operation.

    Though the Hubble would have been better done completely unmanned, just launching a new telescope on an ELV every so often (and instead of the first repair mission just launch a new telescope with the backup mirror (which you’d properly test that time) and leave the old one for observations that don’t need it to be able to focus).

            Alan(UK) said:

    It could not be flown unmanned.

    All they had to do to change that was give the computer control of the landing gear.

            Alan(UK) said:

    Basically the US had all the costs, including lives, of a long and successful programme, without the long and successful programme.

    They did have the long part.

            Alan(UK) said:

    The ISS provided the political imperative to keep it flying. The Hubble provided the PR to justify to the public to keep it flying – the public takes no interest in the doings of the ISS.

    Even the space community takes very little note given they don’t seem to have much of anything.

            Alan(UK) said:

    There are only two places for a manned space programme beyond low Earth orbit: the Moon, and Mars.

    You’re leaving out the asteroids which are very interesting from an industrialisation point of view and often far enough away that there are things you’d want humans for (not the case in cis-lunar space, though does apply to Mars).

            Alan(UK) said:

    We have been to the Moon and did not want to go back even when we did have the chance. That leaves Mars. It is a long way away and is very large – as big as a planet in fact. It will be even more difficult to get around on Mars than on the Moon – think of the Moon with weather. Mars Rover speeds are not going to work for humans – machines have the patience to crawl on for years.

    We barely even explored the moon before deciding not to bother, why would Mars which is even more expensive to reach be any different?

            Alan(UK) said:

    Manned space programmes have been a distraction from all the really important work that has been going on – scientific, commercial, and (if you must) military.

    The Apollo programme did give a lot of scientific return along with far more moon rocks than the Soviet unmanned sample return missions, there does appear to be a role for direct human presence in space exploration but probes do appear better suited for much of the initial scouting.

            DV82XL said:

    All valid points however in the end the Russians are there and the Americans are not. Ask any military type (when the mikes are not on) if their are happy with this and I’ll bet they ain’t.

    “We don’t need [old military technology] because [new military technology] is redundant/obsolete, is a conceit that has been assumed several times in the past, along with the claim that it will save lives, and more often than not it has cost lives before the new tech has the bugs wrung out. In the end, the object of war will always boil down to the need to occupy the theater of operation and exert domination by the projection of might, and to date nothing does that better than a soldier, and yes they sometimes die doing it. That’s just the way it is.

    Thing is that in any war that spreads to space those in low orbit stations likely won’t have a chance to do anything (and almost certainly won’t do anything a robot couldn’t do just as well at lower cost (∴ you can have more of them)).

    We’re at the point at which even North Korea could shoot down the ISS if they wanted to (not hard, just launch a pile of gravel in its path and let the station hit it at 8 km/s).


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  12. 12
    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    Thing is that in any war that spreads to space those in low orbit stations likely won’t have a chance to do anything (and almost certainly won’t do anything a robot couldn’t do just as well at lower cost (∴ you can have more of them)).

    We’re at the point at which even North Korea could shoot down the ISS if they wanted to (not hard, just launch a pile of gravel in its path and let the station hit it at 8 km/s).

    Low orbit stations, are not the sort of weapons platforms I am talking about in particular, and one would assume if these were the case, point defence would be the order of the day, as undefended, just about any current navel vessel could be sunk by a minor power. The ISS is a civilian research facility so it hardly serves as a good example.

    No one is arguing that robots could not eventually do the job, I am only arguing that they cannot now and will not be able to if a conflict started tomorrow.

    That’s the problem. It’s the same as saying Europe can ween itself off Russian gas by building out nuclear. Yes they can but not in time to untie their hands over current crisis in the Ukraine. It’s all very well and quite accurate to say that robots or R/C could do a better job in NEO, but where are they?

    There were those that argued at the time that WWII could be won by aerial bombardment alone, and there were many that believed this was so based on some rather air-tight logic but we know now in retrospect that this was not the case, infact there is some evidence that suggests the bombing campaigns were a monumental waste of men and resources (I’m not among those BTW, nevertheless I recognize that the bombing did not live up to expectations or the promises of those that backed it.) In the end it had to be done the hard way. Nor were the Allies alone in assigning high expectations to novel technology. The vaunted German ‘secret weapons’ that were always held up as examples of brilliant engineering were largely spectacular flops or strategically and tactically pointless (like the V-weapons.) Yes later cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles would take their place as mature weapon systems, but decades later – they did nothing for the German war effort except draw away resources that might have been better invested elsewhere. The one successful novel weapon from that era that did make a difference took a staggering amount of resources by the wealthiest nation at the time working in the luxury of being well away from the theaters of that conflict. Even then they only produced a very small number of devices and almost missed the opportunity to use them in battle.

    The point here is that history has not been kind to those that put too much faith in high tech upfront in a conflict, especially that which is untried.


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  13. 13
    drbuzz0 Says:

    With regards to the use of space as a military location:

    It has been studied and done. The Russians had military space stations. These were basically big manned spy satellites. The cosmonauts could change film and point cameras better than an unmanned satellite. But it’s questionable if that has value today.

    The US did similar with the Manned Orbital Laboratory, only it was cancelled before any manned flights actually took off. It was superior to other spy satellites, but much more expensive.

    Space turns out to be an excellent place to pre-position nuclear warheads. It’s possible other munitions could be effectively launched from orbit. Current treaties prohibit this, but it’s been considered. If enough were up there, it might be worthwhile to have a manned nuclear warhead space station. The astronauts or cosmonauts could maintain the equipment, since it would be a huge base.

    The US even studied building a military base for nuclear weapons and possibly reserve equipment on the moon.

    Additionally, it’s conceivable a sub-orbital spacecraft could be used to deliver materials or personnel across the world in a very short period of time – like, less than an hour.

    So it’s not that far fetched.


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  14. 14
    Krigl Says:

    >The US even studied building a military base for nuclear weapons and possibly reserve equipment on the moon.

    I knew about development of various cool/crazy things for orbit, both “conventional” and nuclear, but nukes on the Moon? That’s right out the Heinlein’s “The Long Watch” from 1949.


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  15. 15
    Robert Sneddon Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    With regards to the use of space as a military location:

    [Clip]
    If enough were up there, it might be worthwhile to have a manned nuclear warhead space station. The astronauts or cosmonauts could maintain the equipment, since it would be a huge base.

    Cycling crews, life support and equipment up to a nuclear warhead support station would cost hundreds of billions of dollars a year and for what? The same weapons delivery capability, basically, of a small number of Ohio boomers and some silo parks where the missile crews can drive home after work on their own commuting nickel. Not going to fly even if the international treaties about weaponising space weren’t in the way. The trend over the past few decades has been for fewer but more accurate nukes generally so a giant orbiting nuclear weapons store which can’t be hidden like a boomer or armoured like a silo or manoeuvered like a mobile Topol-M is simply a Big Horrendously Expensive Target rather than a real military asset.

    What happened to manned space, basically is that automation got good fast and the specific problems of automating stuff in space got solved thanks in large part to the commercial satellite business. See, for example, SpaceX and its ability to make stuff work under acceleration, extreme vibration, zero gee, temperature extremes and high vacuum. Sure it’s based on a lot of engineering knowledge gained over the past 60 years of spaceflight by national governments but it (mostly) works first time while being built down to a price. It’s degraded the need for manned space to the point where funding it is more difficult. I love the idea of humans in space, I’d be ecstatic if I lived long enough to see footprints on Mars but I know the world will continue if I don’t. Even the ISS isn’t really achieving much in terms of research; the crews seem to spend a lot of their time just “housekeeping”. I’d hate to see it go but I don’t see what good it’s doing other than being an achievement in itself.

    Tangentially I’ve noticed a tendency for Americans to treat space as a giant military playground first and foremost. Science, Earth observation, exploration etc. are subsumed by militarisation. A quick scan of space launches by the US indicates many of them are military and intelligence-led these days, the Europeans and even the Russians don’t have this laser focus on dominating people from SPACE! that the US has. Is this a hangover from the 9/11 attacks or has the US always been this kill-crazy?


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  16. 16
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Low orbit stations, are not the sort of weapons platforms I am talking about in particular,

    Then where would you put the weapons? The middle of the Van Allen belts doesn’t seem like a good place to me (but if unmanned should be workable) and there’s also the Δv issue of anything launched from a platform high up needing quite a bit of a burn to re-enter.

            DV82XL said:

    and one would assume if these were the case, point defence would be the order of the day, as undefended, just about any current navel vessel could be sunk by a minor power. The ISS is a civilian research facility so it hardly serves as a good example.

    Point defences aren’t all that likely to be able to deal with a pile of gravel unless you’re talking some pretty high powered lasers that can get a pretty decent rate of fire (ruling out chemical lasers).

    If such powerful lasers are available and installed on space stations then ground based lasers without the power and cooling limitations of a space station would be able to just blast the station right out of existence.

    Giving the space stations powerful thrusters so they can avoid any debris put in their path is likely to be the best way to make them survive but this argues for not putting people on them who could bump their head if the station has to suddenly change course along with getting rid of the people giving a better thrust to weight ratio for the same engines and the possibility of higher accelerations.

            DV82XL said:

    No one is arguing that robots could not eventually do the job, I am only arguing that they cannot now and will not be able to if a conflict started tomorrow.

    I’m going to argue that humans would do just as badly if a war were to start tomorrow. The only case where I can see humans being useful in a space war would be away from earth where the lag time is too much for remote control or where you expect communications to be jammed but where humans present would be able to make the decisions (which doesn’t cover nuclear weapons stations, in fact what does it cover?).

            drbuzz0 said:

    Space turns out to be an excellent place to pre-position nuclear warheads.

    Not really, everyone would know where those warheads are and would know when they are fired.

    Not to mention that orbital weapons platforms can’t fire at just anything as ground-based silos can.

            drbuzz0 said:

    It’s possible other munitions could be effectively launched from orbit.

    That might prove useful, in an all out shooting war between two rough equals I doubt the platforms would survive long enough to do much of that but against a vastly inferior foe might have some use.

            drbuzz0 said:

    Current treaties prohibit this, but it’s been considered.

    The Soviets did find a loophole.

            drbuzz0 said:

    If enough were up there, it might be worthwhile to have a manned nuclear warhead space station. The astronauts or cosmonauts could maintain the equipment, since it would be a huge base.

    OTOH a single space station means putting all your nukes in one launch site, better to have a lot of smaller ones so that you can afford to lose some (this is why the US has silos spread all over the place).

            drbuzz0 said:

    The US even studied building a military base for nuclear weapons and possibly reserve equipment on the moon.

    The moon doesn’t seem like a good place for a military base, though they didn’t know that back then and thought the gravity gauge was real.

            drbuzz0 said:

    Additionally, it’s conceivable a sub-orbital spacecraft could be used to deliver materials or personnel across the world in a very short period of time – like, less than an hour.

    DARPA is studying that last I heard.

            Robert Sneddon said:

    What happened to manned space, basically is that automation got good fast

    This is what our problem is, the same computers that allow us to flame each other on the issue mean that everything we imagined would need large space stations can be done with no one in orbit just as well and for much less money.

            Robert Sneddon said:

    Tangentially I’ve noticed a tendency for Americans to treat space as a giant military playground first and foremost. Science, Earth observation, exploration etc. are subsumed by militarisation. A quick scan of space launches by the US indicates many of them are military and intelligence-led these days, the Europeans and even the Russians don’t have this laser focus on dominating people from SPACE! that the US has. Is this a hangover from the 9/11 attacks or has the US always been this kill-crazy?

    The US does give its citizens the right to arm bears for some reason so…


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    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    Then where would you put the weapons? The middle of the Van Allen belts doesn’t seem like a good place to me (but if unmanned should be workable) and there’s also the Δv issue of anything launched from a platform high up needing quite a bit of a burn to re-enter.

    The argument is not limited to space stations per se, and at any rate one would assume that such a platform designed for military service would be very different than the laboratory types that have been flown to date. No, it is the broad capacity to carry out military missions in that theater that I am more concerned with, and this would include sort duration sorties of the sort that could be carried out from a ground launch. Right now the West lacks the ability to carry out such missions on short notice, while the Russians could in theory with the vehicles they already have available. This is more or less the same argument that is used to justify the continued development of manned fighters and attack aircraft despite the proven usefulness of weaponized UAVs. While UAVs are powerful weapon systems that can project force without endangering their operators they also suffer some limitations and unique vulnerabilities that prevent them from being an air superiority panacea. Ultimately the benefits of having a human in the ****pit that can evaluate a situation and adapt exceed the risks of putting one in harm’s way in certain situations.


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  18. 18
    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    The argument is not limited to space stations per se, and at any rate one would assume that such a platform designed for military service would be very different than the laboratory types that have been flown to date.

    True, but there’s still no room for stealth in space and armour isn’t likely to be all that thick (especially if it is launched from Earth, something built from space materials could be well protected) and there are also some rather serious cooling limitations.

            DV82XL said:

    No, it is the broad capacity to carry out military missions in that theater that I am more concerned with, and this would include sort duration sorties of the sort that could be carried out from a ground launch. Right now the West lacks the ability to carry out such missions on short notice, while the Russians could in theory with the vehicles they already have available.

    But what such missions are they? All I can think of would be inspecting enemy satellites but such satellites are likely to have self-destruct devices (the Russians certainly use them) so you’ll want robots.

    The whole thing is starting to look like the South American dreadnought races, three countries buying up big warships just because the others were when they’d have better off with larger numbers of smaller ships.

            DV82XL said:

    This is more or less the same argument that is used to justify the continued development of manned fighters and attack aircraft despite the proven usefulness of weaponized UAVs.

    Though there is the saying that the last fighter pilot has already been born.

            DV82XL said:

    While UAVs are powerful weapon systems that can project force without endangering their operators they also suffer some limitations and unique vulnerabilities that prevent them from being an air superiority panacea.

    Really the only limitation inherent to UAVs (no reason you couldn’t make an unmanned F-22) that I’m aware of is that they need the communications to go unjammed.


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    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    But what such missions are they?

    That question is the core of my argument: we don’t know. The old adage about preparing to fight the last war comes to mind here and that is why the inherent flexibility of a manned capability might be needed. It is precisely because the conduct of war often throws up unforeseen needs that depending on automated systems at this juncture would be unwise.

            Anon said:

    Really the only limitation inherent to UAVs (no reason you couldn’t make an unmanned F-22) that I’m aware of is that they need the communications to go unjammed.

    Well that’s the whole point. That’s not just an ‘only’ limitation it’s effectively the Achilles’s heel of remote systems and one that is unlikely to be overcome effectively. So basically until autonomous AI can replace humans in these situations, (with all the attendant baggage that autonomous AI warfighters would imply) we are still dependent on putting some poor SOB in harms way.


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    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    That question is the core of my argument: we don’t know. The old adage about preparing to fight the last war comes to mind here and that is why the inherent flexibility of a manned capability might be needed. It is precisely because the conduct of war often throws up unforeseen needs that depending on automated systems at this juncture would be unwise.

    One could make the argument that the last war (or any real significance which would be WWII, everything else is of the same level as the European colonial wars) was fought with people and that insisting on a manned programme may itself be fighting the last war.

    Even then Soyuz isn’t really suited to combat, the most charitable comparison I could make would be to WWI observation biplanes where the crew would shoot at other planes with a rifle and throw grenades out the cοckpit.

            DV82XL said:

    Well that’s the whole point. That’s not just an ‘only’ limitation it’s effectively the Achilles’s heel of remote systems and one that is unlikely to be overcome effectively. So basically until autonomous AI can replace humans in these situations, (with all the attendant baggage that autonomous AI warfighters would imply) we are still dependent on putting some poor SOB in harms way.

    Or we develop a way to communicate that is very resistant to jamming, tight-beam laser transmissions using frequency hopping maybe? Maybe not for UAVs but should work for satellites.

    I still stand by the statement that in any serious shooting war basically all satellites of both sides would be blasted out of the sky very quickly so it’s only the lesser conflicts where they are useful and here there doesn’t appear to be a compelling case for having people in space.


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    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    One could make the argument that the last war (or any real significance which would be WWII, everything else is of the same level as the European colonial wars) was fought with people and that insisting on a manned programme may itself be fighting the last war.

    Even then Soyuz isn’t really suited to combat, the most charitable comparison I could make would be to WWI observation biplanes where the crew would shoot at other planes with a rifle and throw grenades out the cοckpit.

    Frankly these arguments border on sophistry. That the technology to fight WWI in the air was in it’s infancy at the outset was not a reason to ignore it or stop developing it. The artillery in that conflict far outstriped aviation in its ablity to deliver warheads on target both in terms of weight and volume, but if the Central Powers had unopposed control of the air it would have given them a serious advantage. It might not have been in and of itself enough to have changed the eventual outcome, but it would have likely changed the dynamics of that conflict and perhaps extended it if nothing else.

            Anon said:

    Or we develop a way to communicate that is very resistant to jamming, tight-beam laser transmissions using frequency hopping maybe? Maybe not for UAVs but should work for satellites.

    Actually there is some rather deep theoretical reasons why the best you can do is get into a infinite game of one-upmanship in this case where any advantage will be transitory. But again it is not that there are no plausible ways to substitute humans with automations when given sufficient time and sufficient foresight, it is that this point manned systems can adapt, or be adapted far quicker when there isn’t these luxuries are in short supply.

            Anon said:

    I still stand by the statement that in any serious shooting war basically all satellites of both sides would be blasted out of the sky very quickly so it’s only the lesser conflicts where they are useful and here there doesn’t appear to be a compelling case for having people in space.

    Perhaps, but the very fact that these automated systems are so vulnerable and cannot be so easily retasked yet more of an argument for my position I would think.


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    Anon Says:

            DV82XL said:

    Perhaps, but the very fact that these automated systems are so vulnerable and cannot be so easily retasked yet more of an argument for my position I would think.

    But there’s no reason to suspect that a manned system would be any less vulnerable (remember that the most likely outcome of a space war is basically all satellites destroyed very quickly).

    Sending people to risk death? yes, that’s what the military does, sending people to certain death? sometimes they’ve got to do it, sending people to certain death who don’t have a chance at accomplishing anything? WTF are they thinking.

    At this point the only use I see for manned military spacecraft in the cis-lunar system is law enforcement and that’ll have to wait until we’ve got enough space activity that we get space pirates (the clutter and any possible political balkanisation could create stealth that normal doesn’t exist in space).


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    DV82XL Says:

            Anon said:

    Sending people to risk death? yes, that’s what the military does, sending people to certain death? sometimes they’ve got to do it, sending people to certain death who don’t have a chance at accomplishing anything? WTF are they thinking.

    Unfortunately it wouldn’t be the first time that happened in war, in fact it seems to be a depressingly routine occurrence, more so as the scale of a conflict grows. Let’s leave it then agreeing that war in general is one of the more stupid and wasteful activities we engage in as a species regardless, and hope that neither of our theories gets validated in practice.


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    Anon Says:

    Unfortunately one of them probably will.


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    drbuzz0 Says:

            DV82XL said:

    That question is the core of my argument: we don’t know. The old adage about preparing to fight the last war comes to mind here and that is why the inherent flexibility of a manned capability might be needed. It is precisely because the conduct of war often throws up unforeseen needs that depending on automated systems at this juncture would be unwise.

    There are still things that humans can do which machines cannot. I don’t think there is any doubt of that.

    And even when it comes to dexterity and being able to move things around, make adjustments and that kind of thing, humans have unmatched capabilities.

    There is a remote manipulator/robot on the ISS called Dextre, which has many of the same movements as a human and is very capable, but it still can’t do all an astronaut can.

    I don’t think robotic technology is capable of doing something like the missions done to the Hubble space telescope. Maybe some day it can, but not now.


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  26. 26
    Anon Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    I don’t think robotic technology is capable of doing something like the missions done to the Hubble space telescope. Maybe some day it can, but not now.

    But the capabilities that the Hubble repair missions provided could’ve been done cheaper by launching a brand new telescope on an ELV each time.


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  27. 27
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    The Hubble Telescope was designed in the 70s, more than forty years ago. It was laid out to be repaired by human beings in bulky spacesuits but with great difficulty. Several of the instruments it was launched with were meant to be replaced in time to change its observing capabilities during regular servicing operations.

    Anything designed today for Earth orbit to have a repair/replacement capability would be built with robotic access in mind rather than human access. In fact the new generation of space telescopes (NGSTs) like the Herschel, Planck and the ever-delayed James Webb are so sensitive they have to be parked in the Lagrange point behind the Moon well away from low earth orbit and so are totally inaccessible to manned flights to repair and upgrade them.

    Most items on the ISS get fixed by human beings but that is done in part because there are humans on board the ISS, a chicken-and-egg situation. Many of the bits getting fixed or swapped out are part of the life-support system (ammonia coolers and the like) and wouldn’t actually be needed on an unmanned or robotic space project.


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  28. 28
    DV82XL Says:

    Whenever this topic comes up I am always reminded of the fact that every culture that became dependent on slaves slipped into decadence, degeneration, and collapse soon after. This has been particularly true of those that depended on auxiliaries (like the Janissaries) for their defence.

    My biggest fear is that the West reached it’s peak as the culture of exploration and discovery with the end of the Moon landings. An imperative that started in 15th century seems to be vanishing as we turn inward and part of that is manifested in the worship of safety-at-all-costs, not only for individuals, (who of course have the right to manage their own risks) but projecting it to others. The handwringing I have heard and read over those that would choose to travel to Mars one-way knowing they are going to die there makes me want to throw up. We are becoming a timorous people, hiding under our beds afraid of just about everything it would seem, and in some case (like vaccines) the very things that would protect us, and apparently many of us cannot stand the thought of others taking risks in our stead.

    The only faint hope there is is that Western culture has on a few occasions in the past, managed to reinvent itself while standing on the brink. This is unique, as most fall into long periods of decline before bottoming out and rising again, if they do at all. We might pull it off again, but not if we turn our backs on the next frontier. As Browning wrote: “…man’s reach should exceed his grasp — or what’s a heaven for?”


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  29. 29
    George Carty Says:

            DV82XL said:

    My biggest fear is that the West reached it’s peak as the culture of exploration and discovery with the end of the Moon landings. An imperative that started in 15th century seems to be vanishing as we turn inward and part of that is manifested in the worship of safety-at-all-costs, not only for individuals, (who of course have the right to manage their own risks) but projecting it to others.

    Wasn’t the safety-at-all-costs turn taken by modern Western society inevitable due to demographics, in the form of sub-replacement fertility and an ageing population obsessed with its pension provisions?


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    Calli Arcale Says:

            Robert Sneddon said:

    Many of the bits getting fixed or swapped out are part of the life-support system (ammonia coolers and the like) and wouldn’t actually be needed on an unmanned or robotic space project.

    The ammonia coolant loop is actually not part of the life support system, and even if you took out all the humans you’d still need it. The main generators of heat on the station are not the humans; it’s the computers. You need the radiator system to keep the computers from cooking themselves to death. All spacecraft of significant size have cooling systems and radiators.


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