Telling the Truth When No One Wants To Hear It

>> Tuesday, December 8, 2009

When it comes to space stuff, things people tend to polarize. If they're a supporter of the current programs, then they tend to defend even bad ideas. If they think space is a bad idea when there are so many "better" things we can spend our money on, they tend to complain about even the very best programs and ideas as if it were all useless. Then there's the whole faction that want us to do science and no people (a mistake in my opinion). What do they have in common? They're all absolutely ecstatic about commercial spaceflight and think it is the answer to all our prayers.

Actually, that's the odd part. Even people who doubt we ever went to the moon (which is about as whacked as possible are all gangbusters think commercial spaceflight with jump up and run with the ball when NASA and company are spinning in circles. Everybody thinks this will be cheaper, better, more accessible and get rid of all that silly red tape that keeps us from walking on Mars tomorrow.

Sigh. If only.

I will be the last to argue that none of our government programs have all their crap together like I'd like them to have. But, when people tell me commercial spaceflight will solve all our problems, I cringe all the way through.

Why? Because I know too much about it. FAA has been directed to provide no regulation of this business, except for discouraging crashing spacecraft into cities and the like, until 2012. If you're a passenger, you'll be taking your chances.

Early NASA and Soviet space programs did us at least one disservice. They made it look too easy. People shrug away the danger like it makes no difference. "All those safety regulations aren't really important; they just drag us down," I hear. Except I didn't and dont' buy it.

Well, someone agreed with me. I wish I had written this. It was as if he we were wandering around my brain and then did research I hadn't done. Really, if you were seriously considering signing up for an early tourist trip into space, you should read this. And, even if you thought about risking your life, think about how you'd feel if it were your spouse or your kid you were risking.

It ain't the 1920's when aviation was young and no one knew what they were doing. We've learned plenty of lessons the hard way and we shouldn't have to learn them again. Commercial spaceflight could be successful, should be successful, but I worry it won't happen unless they take advantage of all the knowledge written in blood.


  • Project Savior

    In the 1920s people feared death less, even roller coasters bragged of their fatality rates, and of course a 1920's automobile would be a death trap if you could get it to run for over a hundred miles without breaking down.
    It do worry about a spectacular failure shutting the whole industry down for a decade.

  • Stephanie B

    I find the design of SpaceShipTwo interesting and potentially excellent (need data not just looking at it to have a better opinion). But, even if it's the safest possible craft, he and his company can be painted with the same brush if other companies are not as diligent.

  • Jeff King


  • The Mother

    I would love to see commercial space travel take off. Certainly, that's the future. But it is, still, the future.

  • Relax Max

    Odd that you should blog about private space enterprise, since the spaceport is now under construction in my state. I have to pass by it from time to time in my travels to the south, and it is taking shape. At first there was only a sign in the weeds in the cactus off the interstate, but now they are paving the runway. A picture in my local paper a couple days ago. So they must have raised some more money. These are probably not the same people you referenced, but I am all in favor of private enterprise. You never know. And I don't think they will be dropping in on any large cities accidentally. I recently visited their website ( and find them to be a bit overly optimistic. But we still need dreamers, Stephanie. The government has stopped dreaming and you know it.

    I liked your post.

  • Relax Max

    PS. You may recall that a senator from my state was the most recent person to walk on the moon (I almost said "last person"), so we have a tradition of working both sides of the space fence, government and private. :)

    (Harrison "Jack" Schmitt)

  • Stephanie B

    I don't disagree we need dreamers, Max. Absolutely. 'Cept dreaming alone won't do it. Gotta have know-how. Know-how exists, of course. My problem is I don't see it often enough in the company of dreamers.

    I don't disagree that governments aren't dreaming any more. Those dreams have been killed by politics, more's the pity.

    In fact, that's what makes me sad. I'm a dreamer. I want private industry to pull that off. I hope like hell a couple of them do. I'm just afraid dreamers that don't think it through don't pull the rug out before they get the chance.

  • Stephanie B

    Jack Schmitt! One of the few astronauts who was a scientist (geologist) rather than a pilot (not that most of the astronauts, especially today, aren't both and NASA has always picked very capable individuals)!

    Schmitt is an excellent example of why sending people has some real advantages. What cool rocks they brought back!

  • Relax Max

    You DO remember Jack! Well, not exactly "remember" but at least are familiar with him. Only served one term as senator a long time ago. Brought back almost 250 pounds of "rocks", more than any of the other missions. (I'm sorry - 115 kg.) A doctorate in geology, true, from Harvard, but DEFINITELY a pilot, at least in his younger days.

    Here's a bit of trivia. Schmitt was the only person to walk on the moon who never served in the military.

    You are starting to impress me.

  • Stephanie B

    There are actually very few astronauts, even now, who aren't also pilots. It's very big in astronaut circles. But Schmitt wasn't necessarily a pilot "first" (meaning, really, a military test pilot) as opposed to a scientist. It was a huge deal at the time (though, yes, before my own).

    The Apollo Lunar Surface Journals are fascinating reading. (One of the good things about [civilian] government run space programs is the availability of tremendous amounts of data to, well, everybody). Since I worked EVA for several years, it shouldn't be a surprise that this is an area of expertise. Truthfully, if you asked me a bunch of questions about the folks stuck in the command module, I would sadly be less knowledgeable, though I shouldn't be.

    I presented a paper on what we needed to do before wandering about EVA on the Moon or Mars again at a conference several years ago, so I'd done research. I've written papers on the use of SI, tin whiskers, modeling (and the limitations of same) - which is pertinent to the climate discussion, and micrometeoroids and orbital debris. And, I sure as heck don't know everything, but I can do research. :)

  • Stephanie B

    With luck, I'll be presenting a paper next year on near misses and learning from past mistakes, which is, ironically, pertinent to this post.

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