Now that my organic chemistry exam has been officially crossed off the list for this week…I give you ten things about the US space program that you you probably don’t know, but should:
- Contrary to popular belief, much perpetuated by NASA, the space shuttle doesn’t really go into space. Most shuttle missions are to low Earth orbits (LEO) which are only about 350 km up. Most geosynchronous satellites are placed at about 42,000 km – that’s less than 1% of the distance to where most real ‘spacecraft’ are placed. When you consider that the moon is around 400,000 km away, the limitations of NASA technology are pretty stark.
- NASA did not invent Velcro. The hook-and-loop closure, which many believe to be a product of US government funding of the aerospace industry was actually invented by a Swiss engineer in the early 1940s.
- NASA did not invent the microwave oven. An inventor at the Raytheon Corporation filed a patent for a device to heat food using microwave radiation in the mid-1940s.
- NASA did not invent the transistor. The transistor, probably the most significant electronic invention of the 20th century, has a long and colorful history, but it was Bell Labs that actually produced the first real metal-on-silicon transistor.
- Aerospace technologies are some of the oldest and most antiquated around. Modern cell phones have infinitely more computing power than the flight computer in the space shuttle. In fact, the Mac I’m typing this on right now has over 8,000 times the amount of memory than the shuttle.
- A manned mission to Mars is nearly inconceivable at this point in time due to the effects of space radiation. Cosmic rays and solar particles would almost certainly kill the crew of a manned mission to Mars. Space isn’t a vacuum – there are incredibly high energy particles in space that would wreak havoc on biological tissue during the 1-2 years required for a round-trip to the Red Planet. Shielding is possible, in principle, but the mass of lead or aluminum required to make it safe would make the mass of the spacecraft too large to get off the ground. Other ideas for radiation mitigation have been proposed, particularly magnetic field generation, but the power requirements would be gargantuan. This, along with physiological degradation of the organism, is the single largest obstacle to any serious attempt in sending humans anywhere beyond Earth.
- The Constellation program proposed by the Bush administration costs $12 billion, but was canceled last year. However, politicians desperate to avoid losing jobs in their state, were able to make sure NASA could continue building a rocket that has been officially canceled and has no future.
- The International Space Station (ISS) is commonly looked at as an indispensable piece of research equipment. In reality, the vast majority of experiments done aboard it could be performed in ground-based labs or high-altitude aircraft for a fraction of the cost. The two exceptions to this are micro-gravity experiments and studies of the long-term physiological impact of weightlessness. The latter is entirely motivated by the zeal of NASA management to secure funding for Mars missions, a largely unrealistic goal given the current status of American technology. Some argue that this serves as motivation for an increase in funding of space initiatives, but that is probably unwise, given the deplorable track record of NASA on cost controls and scheduling.
- In general, NASA does not build or design spacecraft. Spacecraft, like the Hubble Space Telescope are designed and built by aerospace contractors such as Ball Aerospace, The Boeing Corporation, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, TRW, Raytheon, and a few others. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the sole exception, having designed a few spacecraft over the past few years (notably the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn).
- And now for the most disappointing thing about the aerospace industry…..rocket science isn’t really science at all. Most aerospace engineers haven’t seen anything remotely technical or complicated since they were in college. The aerospace industry makes a profit by finding ways to continue recycling the same old, tired technology and convincing the government that what was designed and built decades ago is still cutting-edge. Sadly, this works. NASA raves about how great a design their new Ares line of rockets would be if only they could get funding for them. Guess what? The latest and greatest design from NASA on building rockets (which they haven’t done since the 1960s) is based on the shuttle’s solid rocket booster. That would be the same SRB that led to the death of Challenger crew in 1986.
Full disclosure… I actually am a rocket scientist. Think it’s all white coats, nerds, and laboratories? Think again – we all work in cubicle land. I know people that spend 30 hours a week in meetings about staffing, budgeting, and scheduling. A couple years ago, I made the mistake of putting a simple integral in a Powerpoint package…big mistake. I got ignored and given direction to have another meeting in a few days. For that matter, I’ve had meetings to prepare for meetings about a meeting to be had later after someone else schedules and holds a completely different meeting. Any surprise that I want out of the aerospace industry?
Clearly, I have a certain degree of animosity for the bureaucracy and political crap that underlies everything about the aerospace industry. All the major players are motivated by the same thing – figuring out ways to continue capturing federal money and maintaining political power. NASA engineers and technicians are terrified of losing their jobs or being transferred to another program and being forced to work on a new project. Ever wonder why it’s always Florida, Texas, and Alabama politicians screaming about how important space exploration is? Those are the states that benefit from the hundreds of billions of dollars that gets immolated each year by NASA with the tacit approval of the taxpayer who thinks that all that spending is actually producing something.
One last thing which most no one knows. All those beautiful and breathtaking pictures sent back from the Hubble Space Telescope…? They’re taken in black-and-white! It’s only after they’re sent back to Earth and played with on computers for a while that those beautiful pictures you’ve seen are actually released.
Anyway, the next time someone on the telly says that spending billions on space exploration brings all sorts of benefits to society, remember what you’ve read here. All those billions blown on NASA haven’t really done all that much except subsidize some voter constituencies and let a handful of ex-USAF test pilots wear an astronaut patch on their shoulder.