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VASIMR-powered spacecraft illustration
While some might dismiss interest in advanced propulsion systems like VASIMR as a fetish, in many cases these are mature technologies that space acivists are trying to draw attention to. (credit: NASA)

Space fetishism: obsession or rational action?

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Dwayne Day’s recent article about “space fetishism” (“Space fetishism: space activism’s obsession with technological and ideological saviors”, The Space Review, December 21, 2009) deserves a serious response. His constructive criticism is not being deliberately derogatory to activists, and on some points, his analysis is correct. However, while he has given lots of examples, he has not defined what he is describing. He has described as fetishism support for the entire spectrum of pro-space issues including space solar power, rapid launch technology, microsats, heavy lift vehicles, space elevators, nuclear rockets, the VASIMR rocket engine, propellant depots in orbit, ISRU, solar sails, and so on. It’s fair, then, to ask the question, “Is there anything an activist can support that is not fetishism in Day’s book?”

I think a large part of whether an activist’s actions could be classed as fetishism or not is the approach taken rather than the issue chosen: how support for a topic is conducted.

I proudly plead guilty to being an advocate of many of the items listed above. However, I think a large part of whether an activist’s actions could be classed as fetishism or not is the approach taken rather than the issue chosen: how support for a topic is conducted. In other words, is the supporter looking beyond a narrow technical or ideological arena in expressing their support? It is also clear that in any topic arena—space or otherwise—that depends on complex technology, you will find a bunch of half-baked ideas being proposed, both by newcomers and inexperienced long-term enthusiasts who do not have enough “real world” experience to be wary of all claims. The credulous university student excitement over the “discovery” of cold fusion and the real breakthroughs in high-temperature superconductivity many years ago come to mind as good examples. The former has never been substantiated, and the latter has still not been implemented on a large scale due to the extreme difficulty of trying to make wires out of what is basically a ceramic! More basic physics work is obviously needed here.

One point where Day is dead right is in his hammer-and-nails analogy: many discussions among supporters involve rather narrow technical or engineering issues. Some space engineer types think a problem can be solved just by building a big enough rocket with the “right” design, like the current HLV debates. The discussion then intensifies among the adherents regarding the various designs for such a rocket. However, most of them have never looked first at the bigger picture of why we need the payloads the rocket would launch, how will we use them, and will we be able to afford the rocket’s continued operations, especially if it is used for very few missions and if the rocket is expendable. Such discussions are justified only if the whole group has first faced the larger issues that engineers often ignore.

Day points out how rarely activists try to get the attention of people outside their circles. Here he is both right and wrong. There is a huge amount of “preaching to the choir”, but on the other hand, other (non-space-related) groups are also focused tightly on their specialties, and will usually tune out and ignore input from other fields. A good example would be supporters of corn-based ethanol biofuel production, who are not interested in hearing about food shortages or corn price increases. Very few people are generalists who can reasonably analyze and correlate ideas and information from multiple specialties at once. There must be internal discussions in interest groups to attempt to find common positions before communicating ideas to outside groups. The frequency of political lobbying events in Washington by space groups shows that, in fact, considerable effort is made to reach outside the space community. Efforts to effectively reach other technical communities still need some work.

There is a huge amount of “preaching to the choir”, but on the other hand, other (non-space-related) groups are also focused tightly on their specialties, and will usually tune out and ignore input from other fields.

Additional blame can be placed on the news media, who are very erratic in their coverage of space and other technical issues. They will gladly cover a photogenic or dramatic story, but when it comes to the “boring” policy issues of why, what, how much, and when, they go glassy-eyed. Many significant technical stories and issues, such as space solar power, have been very rarely covered by the media in comparison to other energy sources. Mainstream media types also frequently refuse to display any technical knowledge, and believe that they have to play the part of “Joe Sixpack” to keep from alienating their audience.

A related factor could be called the “Press Release Babble Syndrome”, where members of the media frequently rely on poorly-written university press releases and do no research of their own, either to make sure that they understand the story or to amplify it. Day himself seems to suffer from this syndrome some in his descriptions of the VASIMR rocket engine as a “nuclear rocket”. It is actually a plasma rocket, which needs a lot of power to use its propellant efficiently. The power could be supplied either from a large solar array or from a compact nuclear reactor.

Another valid issue is how much effect all of the activists’ efforts over the last half-century or so has had on national space policy and progress. The answer depends on the individual activist. Many of us undoubtedly have had little impact. Others have had a huge impact. Those who go on to found successful aerospace companies, contribute to the scientific or engineering literature, appear frequently on the media, and get their message successfully across to the public and politicians are among the latter. A number of people who started out as activists have ended up in very prominent places.

Different concepts and projects need varying levels of publicity and support. Anything that has progressed to the point where one or more companies are successfully pursuing and developing it has probably passed the point where it needs help, unless there is a political fight under way which could endanger progress. For example, electronics hobbyists did not need to proselytize the benefits of miniaturization to electronic companies. In this case, however, it was the electronic hardware hacker equivalents of space activists who, putting together the parts available from various companies, jump-started the personal computer revolution. However, many concepts that are eminently doable and ripe for development have been left neglected for decades, since either conflicts of interest, politics, ideology, herd mentality and groupthink, “not invented here” syndrome, or just sheer inertia has sidelined them. The best example of this problem in the space field is the astonishing delay in developing a reusable (flyback and land) first stage rocket. The concept dates back to work by Eugen Sänger during World War II, and we have had the technical capacity to build one for at least 40 years.

There is clear logic on the part of privatization supporters for their position. It is very obvious to almost everyone that there is little or no motive in government for efficiency.

A few examples of the progress of issues and topics can give a better perspective. In 2006, space solar power was getting essentially no coverage or interest. After the publication of the Space Based Solar Power Architecture Study in 2007, which was created by the off-duty efforts of four military officers, we now have fairly consistent media coverage with at least one company predicting it could orbit a commercial satellite in just six years, even if many of us question whether such an optimistic schedule is realistic. The creator of one of the most prominent NewSpace launch companies has dedicated his company’s efforts to the economic breakout into space. Concepts such as the “economic breakout into space” have taken years to distill and disseminate, and usually do not spring wholly formed from a single mind.

Day’s questioning of the validity of ISRU (In Situ Resource Utilization) is perplexing. In effect, he is implying that officials had proposed incorporating an untested ISRU system on a Mars sample return mission to extract rocket fuel components from the Martian atmosphere. No responsible person has ever proposed using ISRU untested on any “operational” mission; ISRU experiments would fly on other missions to demonstrate the technology first. Years of extensive ground testing would have also been required before risking a mission failure on an untested technology.

We are now in a similar situation in regard to the proposed use of Stirling cycle electric power generators (with moving parts) on outer solar system missions, which would replace the existing and reliable—but low efficiency—thermocouple-based generators (with no moving parts) that currently convert the radioisotope’s heat flow into electricity. This is simply a question of leveraging effective use of mass in a payload. Both new technologies would save a large amount of mass; and both require testing before they can be used as a critical part of a mission. A comparable development cycle occurred before the first use of an ion engine on an actual mission. Certainly activists would not have been part of such a debate unless some of the space scientists themselves were also activists. Stranger things have happened!

Support for the VASIMR plasma engine is another of Day’s targets. It has a proven thrust, a known power requirement, and a known mass. The engine is being tested in a vacuum chamber and an existing model may be able to assist the space station in maintaining its orbit. No one, though, is claiming that this is the second coming. It is a significant step forward for ion and plasma rocket technology, but for interplanetary travel to fully benefit from it, a compact nuclear power source must be developed, a step that politics and economic cutbacks has repeatedly blocked for several decades. This—the power source—is what the money needs to be spent on, and it will not take multiple billions of dollars if a properly focused and managed program is run. Getting power for VASIMR is not a sure thing, but definitely worth pursuing. The inventor, a scientist-astronaut with a long track record, is the primary supporter. Activists have only responded with support since the announcement that the engine’s development was completed.

Day is correct in the need for NASA to support both short- and long-term technological development, and activists have repeatedly pointed this out. A long list of these items is brought up at most space conventions, including the aforementioned nuclear-electric propulsion, lunar and Mars base ISRU, orbiting propellant depots, reusable boosters and spacecraft, and aero-capture for vehicles returning from the Moon or GEO.

For advocates, be sure you know the facts; start with reasons, rationales, and goals, not technology; think of possible negatives, not just positives; and look at the big picture, not just the details.

Day’s analysis of the proposal to “flood Mars with small rovers” is correct. In the current situation, with limited budgets, what we are currently doing is also basically correct: a few, increasingly sophisticated rovers coordinated with orbiters. We do not have the budget for even five rover driver and science management teams. Small, cheap landers also cannot land in or near interesting areas: they have to land in a very large and “safe”—flat—zone, since they cannot afford to carry expensive pinpoint landing equipment. The frustration by mission scientists of not being able to fully characterize unusual rocks identified by the current rovers is never noticed by the public or even many activists. Again, this is a case of too little practical experience and not being able to walk in someone else’s shoes. A similar but scientifically more practical proposal would be to “flood” Mars with a network of small automated geophysical and meteorological landers, designed to withstand Martian winters and not require a lot of active human management. This is a good example of a “low sex appeal” but high value project that has been sidelined for decades.

Day’s claim that support for commercialization of space is ideologically driven is again partly right and partly wrong. Conservatives and Libertarians certainly generally support privatization, while liberals generally support expansion of government. There are things that the private sector should do and there are things that the government should do. The hard part is to find a way of figuring out where to separate the private from the government arenas and, where the government is already providing a service, when it should be transferred to the private sector. This is definitely a very gray area. Science missions are clearly in the government’s arena for now. Prizes for delivering specific data can work only if the prize is large enough. Areas where private companies are starting to demonstrate competence and where the technology is not cutting edge, such as Earth to orbit transport and propellant delivery, are good candidates for privatization. Deep space exploration and scientific planetary base building, whenever it finally happens, will likely be in the government’s bailiwick.

There is clear logic on the part of privatization supporters for their position. It is very obvious to almost everyone that there is little or no motive in government for efficiency. A simple comparison between the Constellation’s launch vehicle and Orion crew vehicle design and the Falcon 9/Dragon capsule design shows the greatly diverging instincts of the designers. In the former, virtually everything is designed to be expendable, and any remaining reusable elements are always first on the chopping block whenever the next weight limit design crisis hits. Unfortunately, even plans to reuse the Orion crew capsule itself are being dropped. By contrast, for Falcon 9 and Dragon, the attempt to achieve reusability in every component is a given.

Is there any argument that the proponents of the old, expendable systems can provide that can show a clear economic or technical advantage over reusable systems, other than very short term development cost economics? How many times do we fetishists have to repeat Rick Tumlinson’s 20-year-old “mantra” (paraphrased) that expendable airplanes would be too expensive to use, before it sinks in? How many dollars worth of reusable airplane fuselages are built globally each year compared to how much of expendable rocket bodies? Is the answer obvious or not?

The question about privatizing the space station hinges on such issues. Obviously, no private company could make a profit operating a station that costs a cool billion dollars a trip in the shuttle to visit and resupply. But what if it only cost 50 million dollars per mission instead? Suddenly, the already existing station could become a “hot property”. Day himself, in comparing the inefficiencies of NASA as a federal agency to the Department of Homeland Security (currently occupying a very prominent place in the headlines), gives as strong as argument as any for privatization. Day also ignores the fact that many of the designs used by the large private companies who work closely with NASA are in fact dictated by NASA in exquisite detail. These big companies are merely building equipment to NASA specs, not their own designs.

In summary, like any other discussion of human events and goals, experience counts, and there is a lot of inexperience. To be fair, lets give the inexperienced advocates as much slack as those in other areas of human endeavor. Even experienced people make mistakes and get facts wrong. For advocates, be sure you know the facts; start with reasons, rationales, and goals, not technology; think of possible negatives, not just positives; and look at the big picture, not just the details. If we can follow just a few of these rules, we will be communicating much better with both ourselves and the outside world.