Words of Advice:

"If Something Seems To Be Too Good To Be True, It's Best To Shoot It, Just In Case." -- Fiona Glenanne

"Flying the Airplane is More Important than Radioing Your Plight to a Person on the Ground
Who is Incapable of Understanding or Doing Anything About It." -- Unknown

“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level
and then beat you with experience.” -- Mark Twain

"Stay Strapped or Get Clapped." -- probably not Mr. Rogers

"Eck!" -- George the Cat

Monday, January 30, 2012

Mars and Moon Base Gingrich

Newt is taking some grief for his Moon base idea.

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BadTux asks: Why the hell not? Why not return to the Moon and then go to Mars? It can't be any more wasteful than the F-35 or the V-22 programs. We build bridges to nowhere so that people will have jobs building the bridges. In the overall scheme of things, going back to the Moon and to Mars is expensive, but not overly so.

But is it possible? I am not terribly sure that it is. A hell of a lot goes into flying a large spacecraft. For example, during the Apollo program, the first all-up test flight of the Saturn V-Apollo stack was in November of 1967. The first manned flight was the Apollo 8 translunar flight in December, 1968. The Air Force began the development of the Saturn V main engine in the mid-1950s. The Air Force was going to drop the engine, realizing that they just didn't have a need for an engine of that power, but NASA took it over. The first all-up test firing of the F-1 engine was in 1959.

We cannot build them that big anymore. The RS-25 engine of the Space Shuttle is the largest flying engine that we can make in series production and it is less than a quarter of the power of the F-1. The RS-68, designed in the 1990s, is maybe half the output of a F-1, it is used on Delta-IV rockets and it has only flown a few times. In comparison, the workhorse of the American rocket program is the Atlas V which has a main engine, the RD-180, that is built by NPO Energomash in Russia (for the Atlas-Centaur, the Centaur upper state uses an American RL-10, which was originally developed in the 1950s).

NASA has resurrected the J-2 engine that was used on the second stage of the Saturn V. Some of the old engines were dragged out of of storage and museums and test-fired to support the development of the new J-2X.

Going to the Moon is, of course, more than just rocket engines. The Apollo capsule was under design in 1961; the first iteration, the Block 1, was so rushed that it killed three astronauts on the launch pad in 1967. Grumman was awarded the contract for the Lunar Excursion Module in 1962, though Grumman had been studying the concept on its own dime since the late 1950s. When President Kennedy proposed going to the moon by the end of 1969, most of the pieces were already in the planning pipeline and some of them had been tested.

Even if we get there, everything that is needed at the Moon base, for now, would have to be fired out of the Earth's deep gravity well to the Moon. A Falcon-9 costs $50 million or so to launch and it might be able to send 400 pounds of stuff to the Moon. A Delta IV heavy can get ten tons to escape velocity at $400 million and given that you'd need some sort of engine and such to slow the stuff down and land it, maybe you be able to land three or four tons of usable freight on the Moon. 8,000 lbs, that's something like $50,000 a pound in freight costs to the Moon. How much stuff would it take to build a habitable shelter on the Moon, given that there is no radiation protection and without radiation sheltering, a nice large solar flare, like the kind that we are seeing now, might cook everyone there?

So it will be expensive to construct, to maintain, to live there. Should we?

Here is one reason: If civilization survives for another five or ten centuries, the 20th Century will be known for three things: The invention of powered flight, the Moon landings and the development of atomic weapons. All of the rest will be the province of historians, in the way that the 15th Century is remembered for the first voyage of Christopher Columbus.

If the 21st Century is going to be remembered for anything, it will be either for a Moon colony or a Mars landing. It would be nice if our national government could get its shit together so that the first language spoken on Mars is English.

But don't bet the farm on it. Or even a bag of cat litter.


BadTux said...

The thing is, you're thinking about a replay of the Apollo program, while anybody else thinking about going to the moon today is thinking more about the proposed Soviet plan that never got off the ground -- i.e., boost a bunch of unmanned modules into orbit, combine them into the final spaceship in much the same way we built the ISS, and then head off to the moon. The Atlas V is plenty big to bump cargo into orbit and the Delta IV Heavy is only a few brush-strokes away from being man-rated, so...

So why didn't the Soviets make it to the moon? Basically, the computers needed to place modules basically on the dot didn't exist. So instead they tried duplicating the Apollo approach of one big rocket to haul everything to the moon. That of course proved to be a disaster because they started way too late and didn't have time to design an engine big enough, and the computer technology of the day wasn't good enough to cluster 30+ smaller engines and have the result be controllable. So in essence, lack of computer technology kept the Soviets from going to the moon. That's *not* a problem we have today.

- Badtux the Spacey Penguin

Comrade Misfit said...

What you're talking about, in essence, is Von Braun's plan from the early 1950s. But either way, every pound that goes to the Moon has to be lifted out of a 25,000 mph gravity well and be delivered down a 5,300 mph gravity well. Worse, any deliveries to the Moon have to be slowed down by rockets alone (unlike going the other way, where we can use the Earth's atmosphere as a natural (if dangerous) brake).

If you have 250 tons of cargo to fly from Europe to Asia, you can fly it all on one An-225, two 747s, five DC-8s, eighty DC-3s or 10,000 UPS parcels. Somewhere along the line, it costs more to send it small.

Whether it is Atlas V, Delta IV or Son of Saturn V, it is going to cost more to go back to the Moon than any one of those 536 short-sighted bastards in D.C. have the vision to commit to spend.

BadTux said...

On that last, I can't disagree -- while comparatively speaking we're talking about peanuts, the notion of spending $150B/year for the next decade doing a real moon program in an era of political deadlock seems rather a non-starter.

-Badtux the Realist Penguin (SIGH!).