Ten Things About Space Exploration You Probably Don’t Know

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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).
  10. 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.

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11 Responses

  1. Spot on! I’m about two years behind you in the game, just started thinking about it, doing afterburner design. Before that I did some work on the SSMEs. It’s incredible how boring this stuff is.

    Keep posting, I’m quickly catching up to real time and can’t wait to hear about how the semester finished

  2. I would love to see an article of things NASA has actually contributed. Just to be balanced.

    • I could try to write something like that. But, given my cynicism for the US space program, it would probably wind up being sarcastic after a bit.

      To be honest, NASA hasn’t really done anything innovative since the 1970s. Most of the accomplishments that they have made were either made by others (e.g., JPL) or wound up costing a couple of orders of magnitude more than they were originally budgeted, like the James Webb Space Telescope.

      I’m not against scientific exploration of space, but the public doesn’t seem to realize how much money is being pissed away by the bureaucratic nightmare that is NASA, all wasted in the name of manned spaceflight.

  3. There are certainly technological contributions that are a direct result of the space program. GPS, for example, has become a regular tool for those navigating unfamiliar locations. As someone with experience working for NASA, I can agree with some of what you said about the bureaucracy, but surely you can agree that the benefits of promoting space exploration far outweigh the risks of not inspiring the public.

    • Thanks for the comment. I overlooked this one:

      Another misconception is that NASA had anything to do with the GPS program. GPS was originally begun by the Department of Defense back in the 1970s and is currently managed by the 50th Space Wing from Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO. NASA had absolutely nothing to do with either the design and construction of the spacecraft or any of their launches.

      The claim that the space program inspires students to enter the science and engineering fields is probably warranted to some extent. However, you’re never going to convince me that inspiring our youth is a valid purpose for government. Even if it were, our government has burned a staggering amount of money over the past 40 years attempting to elevate education in this country and failed miserably. If there were any evidence to suggest that throwing money at a bloated bureaucracy could motivate students to excel in math and science, then we might consider it, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

      There are really only two reasons NASA continues to receive funding, in spite of the gigantic amounts of waste which have recently come to light. I’m of course referring to the James Webb Space Telescope, which has overrun it’s original budget by something like 5 billion dollars and will eventually probably cost three times that, once operational and maintenance costs are included.

      First, the American people continue to believe in the idea that humans are going to ultimately colonize the moon, travel to distant planets, and so forth. The fact that the vast majority of voters are ignorant of the most basic scientific facts explains why they are so easily suckered in by these ideas. The technical problems associated with something like traveling to Mars are simply beyond the average person on the street, so when a bunch of “smart” guys from NASA show animations of us flying to other planets, they have no problem believing it to be just around the corner, if we would just spend the money. NASA is one of the few popular programs, so politicians have no problems spending my money on it. It often gets framed the way you did, by claiming that it will inspire our youth, bring benefits to our society, and things of that nature.

      The second reason is the importance of the states which employ the bulk of NASAs workforce, in particular the state of Florida and Virginia. Any politician, particularly a presidential candidate, which disagrees with the idea of increasing the budget on “space exploration” is committed political suicide and they know it. With real unemployment around 15%, there is no way that any politician would ever consider ending any government agency, particularly one like NASA which a lot of people seem to think contributes in a positive way to our society.

  4. A very depressing view of NASA, one that the public has gotten a few peeks at through the years, but not in such a rapid-fire set of bullet points.

    If you find the environment so stifling and the work so boring you probably _should_ find somewhere else, and probably some other industry, to work in. I find it hard to believe that you’d find it difficult to discover a place willing to hire you. (No hostility, just agreeing with you.)

    BTW, they usually admit that those photos are manipulated. And I do remember hearing that they come in black and white, but I don’t remember where I heard it.

    • Ultimately, the defense and aerospace industries have become jobs-programs sponsored by the Department of Defense. Very little original work has been done in a very long time and it has more or less degenerated into an act of funneling money to defense contractors so that they can continue to support existing programs.

      Also, I have a very negative perspective on NASA. In my view, the foolish attitude and culture of NASA directly led to the deaths of the Challenger and Columbia crews. And, since the mentality of that organization is largely unchanged, I believe that any attempt at continuing manned-spaceflight is going to ultimately lead to the same result.

  5. Thank you for this post. It was definitely very enlightening and definitely things that I did not know at all about the aerospace industry; I guess I will have to do some homework and read up more about it. Now I am really curious.

  6. You do realize that many of the projects that you cite as not being NASA were in fact funded by NASA. My dad is also a rocket scientist. He worked for NASA… Actually he never worked for NASA. He always worked for contractors, like Bell, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, CSC, etc. Very many things that today exist for our convenience and today attributed – rightly or wrongly – to NASA may not have been directly invented by NASA, which has very little in the way of capacity for “inventing.”
    But they were invented to support NASA.

  7. […] valid criticisms of NASA bureaucracy and wasted development.[15]Med School Odyssey (2011) – link jQuery("#footnote_plugin_tooltip_15").tooltip({ tip: "#footnote_plugin_tooltip_text_15", tipClass: […]

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