Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The End of the Space Age

Ah, here we are talking about my shit again. It's hard to find a consistent figure, but a casual search suggests that my average bowel movement could be anywhere from 122 to 450 grams. That translates to about from a quarter pounder without cheese to near on a full pound. That seems on the lite side to me. I'm pretty sure I've managed to plunk out a trout or two in my heyday.

Reason I'm figuring this all out is, do astronauts have to get enemas before they launch? I mean, it's an easy way to save on weight, and when you consider that a Space Shuttle payload costs $3,000 - $5,000* to put a pound of cargo into orbit, well, dookies become a serious chunk of change.

And maybe that will be my metaphorical term of release: I gotta go make some serious change.

Well, of course, this is all leading up to the fact that this coming Friday, July 8th, 2011, will be the launch of the very last (planned) shuttle mission. After that, the US of A will have no way to put people into orbit.

So, is this is it? Is this the end of the Space Age? I mean, once the ISS is de-orbited in 2016 (anyone care to wager on that), there is really no "there" to go to out there. People say, "What is this shit you talking about, Johnny? There's the Moon to go back to, there's Mars, hell, there's a whole solar system waiting to be explored"!

To which I say, nope. Why go back to the Moon? Why Mars? We all know Mars is dead as hell. All that talk about life on Mars is just talk to keep people interested. Moon, Mars, all those other places, why it's just too damn expensive to go there. For a manned space program. The robots seem to be doing all right.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'd very much love to see us go off planet, but you've got to make a good money case for doing it. And as far as I can see,  we ain't there yet. No, I don't think the space program has been a waste of money. Hell, you want a waste of money, have a look at what we do down here.

Here's one of my favorite calculations. Let's use TARP even though there was plenty of stimulus money that went down the shitter (read, disappeared forever into the pockets of useless rich people). So, seven hundred billion dollars. That's 700,000,000,000 dollars.  Let's use that high end* Space Shuttle number of $5000/lb. 700 billion divided by 5000 gives 140 million pounds  boosted into orbit. That's 70,000 tons. That's a cruise ship at least. Throw in a few hundred billion more, and that's a Kitty Hawk class nuclear aircraft carrier, like, oh, the USS Enterprise  - fully stocked, fueled, crewed,  slightly modified, and ready for a Grand Tour of the Solar System. So, no, not a waste of money that it was blown on.

But it just ain't gonna happen! There's no there there!

That, of course, could change. What would it take. Certainly something more than just mineral riches or scientific curiosity. I don't think you quite need to go as melodramatic as the end of the world. Or maybe that would do it. Some big asteroid coming to smoosh us all with a extinction event might get our asses in gear. But I can't see it being anything more than temporary. Okay, crisis averted, what else is on TV type of scenario.

But, say, discovery of alien artifacts out there? That might do it. A monolith on the Moon.

The Dawn space probe is due to reach Vesta next year and Ceres in 2015. A photograph of some complex geometric earthworks of unmistakable artifice on either of these tiny worlds would do the trick.

*News from slashdot on the last shuttle launch included the information that a orbit-pound of cargo costs $10,000. So, getting the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise into orbit would cost $1,895,620,000, or a little more than TARP and the stimulus. That's still $3 trillion cheaper than Bush's war on terror.


  1. we're not going anywhere until we can get there faster.

  2. We are not going anywhere until the earth to orbit costs get at or below $100/lb. Even the most optimistic estimates for the upcoming commercial launch vehicle, Falcon Heavy, are around $1000/lb. (Keep in mind the Space Shuttle was initially projected to be $118/lb). Until the price comes down (for large payloads) nothing is going to happen. Nothing major, that is.