Sunday, April 29, 2012

Science: I'm sorry, but Darwin says NASA should probably go extinct

Are American science and technology all that the public believes they are?

I have this debate at work, with friends and online.  Are American science and technology competitive in the world marketplace?  Is science capable of all the things that the public seems to believe it is capable of?  Have we lost our competitive edge?

I'm going to explore this in a series of posts.
"I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds" - Oppenheimer at the Trinity Test

When I'm talking about science and technology, I'm not talking about this:

You can exchange snarky comments and yearbook photos like you did in high school, only over the internet???  OMG!  That sounds like about as much fun as getting a colonoscopy!

I'm thinking more like this:
Launch of Apollo 11, from NASA history site ( )

What's the difference?  Well, one is a simple program that turns social interactions into a Pachinko-like MMOG   The other takes serious f--king skill to engineer.

Ignoring for the moment that Mark Zuckerberg is being called a genius for taking World of Warcraft and removing all the fun, the technology behind social networking has been around for a very long time.  The technology has just gotten cheaper.  It's pretty easy to write a program that allows you to text back and forth and share pictures; it's not particularly impressive.

However, building real things in the real world that can do things like go into space or hit an object very far away is actually quite difficult.

There's this presumption that because we did it once we could do it again any time we like.  It's just a matter of choice, right?

We could totally go back to the moon if we wanted to - further, if we wanted to.  Technology only moves in one direction, right?


The Constellation Program: The Scary Reality of NASA and American Science 

Most of what I'm about to discuss regarding Constellation is in this Government Accountability Office report:

For those who have never visited the GAO site (, I strongly recommend it.  GAO is where the reporters learn a good deal of the interesting government waste stories that they later expand and put on TV.  So, if you don't like your food chewed for you, GAO is a great information source.

But first: what is the Constellation program?

Constellation is a program that is supposed to allow us to return to the moon and eventually send a manned mission to Mars.

Founded in November 2005, the program has cost $10 billion as of August 2009.  While this is trivial compared to the entire Apollo program - NASA estimates that in today's dollars the 17 Apollo missions cost a total of $170 billion dollars - when the program is considered in full, Apollo only cost about $10 billion per mission.

The Constellation program, on the other hand, cost $10 billion in the first four years supposedly simply trying to accomplish what we've accomplished before: a manned flight to the moon.

But that's exactly the problem: we couldn't rebuild the Apollo materials.  We couldn't rebuild the shuttle at all.

Problems Listed in GAO Report

There are many problems listed in the GAO report, but some of them are inexcusable.

For example, NASA could not re-create the ablative heat shield used in the Apollo missions.  The ablative heat shield is the material that slowly burns away on re-entry, protecting the contents of the ship, i.e. keeps the astronauts from turning in to charcoal nuggets.

When asked by Congress why they couldn't build the same shield they built in the 60's and 70's, NASA replied:

"NASA is using an ablative material derived from the substance used in the Apollo program. After some difficulties, NASA was successful in recreating the material. Because it uses a framework with  any honeycomb-shaped cells, each of which must be individually filled without voids or imperfections, it may be difficult to repeatedly manufacture to consistent standards." - GAO report above

The fuel tank is also giving huge problems.  Hydrogen and oxygen tanks are separated in a region of the ship called the common bulkhead.  While the Saturn rockets used common bulkheads, many have suggested that the common bulkhead design is inherently flawed and dangerous, in part due to the proximity of hydrogen, oxygen and heat.  Despite the fact that previous missions during the 1960's and 1970's used common bulkheads, NASA can't quite seem to re-create a common bulkhead.

Other problems arise from engine vibroacoustics, that is, that the engine generates such tremendous noise and vibration that other portions of the ship are susceptible to damage; problems with drag at lift off; and the fact that the ship in its entirety might be too heavy to lift off the ground.

All of these problems had been handled by the first Apollo missions in the 1960's and 1970's.  And yet, we cannot seem to recreate the materials.

Is it just that NASA sucks?  Or could we actually build these things if we wanted to?

That is a profoundly difficult question to answer.

To start to attempt to answer it, another place to look is another GAO report: the European missile defense development report:

If we look at the analysis, we can see that the same ballistics problems are listed in the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) tests.  Ballistic missiles use the same technology as NASA rockets, and we can't quite seem to build them, either.

Now, this is spotty evidence as I do know we can build tanks and cars but we couldn't for decades handle building the M2 Bradley.  So just because the military can't build a missile defense system for Europe doesn't mean that all American ballistics technology is failing or retrograding.

But the fact that NASA, probably the single most successful ballistics program in all of American history, cannot build the same equipment is disturbing.

So... What's your point?

My point is that everyone assumes that we can build these things just because we built them a half a century ago.  However, that's faulty logic, and it appears to me that every time we try now we fail.

This is important because people are crying about things like Congress proposing to cut NASA's budget.

But if NASA is an abysmal failure, why should we hand them more money?  Isn't that evidence that maybe NASA has outlived its usefulness and maybe we need a new, leaner program to take its place?

I'm not saying we shouldn't develop ballistics, missiles and jet technology, which is what NASA really does.

What I am saying is that if they can't make good on their promises to the American people, then NASA itself is useless and should be scrapped.

We can't get teary-eyed and emotional about what they "did."  The scientists who did those things are long gone.  We have to focus on what NASA does and if it's accomplishing its stated objectives.  It appears that NASA is failing in this regard; ergo, it may be a good idea to trash it and build something new.

If we really can't develop the technology with a new program then we need to stop and ask "why." If American defense technology (which is what NASA develops) is retrograding, that is a serious issue to scientists, the military and science lovers.


  1. First, I agree with you re the GAO
    Second, I agree with you that not all technology is created equal.
    Damn, agreeing with you. Twice. What's the fun in THAT?

    1. Yeah, but do you see my point that we're so enamored with the name "NASA" that we're failing to stop and question whether or not they're doing their jobs?

      There's others: the James Webb Space Telescope, for example, or the Mars Science Laboratory.

      We're so enamored with the name "NASA" I worry that the public doesn't realize that it can not only be a serious black hole money sink, but by sopping up resources and producing nothing it's becoming a science and knowledge sink as well.

  2. It all goes to risk-tolerence. In the early 1960s, it was acceptable (if embarassing, in the shadow of Yuri Gagarin and Sputnick) to have multiple launch failures with Vnagard, etc. (;

    Post-Challenger, it became less so.

    Further, the Apollo program was a REAL Stretch with the technology of the time. ( That it worked is wonderful, but the real achievement is making space flight work on a routine basis.

    Put another way, it is far from impossible that someone like St. Brendan visited North America in the 5th Century CE, but it was the 15th Century CE before it became routine.

  3. As far as risk tolerance, that is a realistic issue.

    However, if we're going to the moon, we must accept risks. We can only do our best; there is no way to make any shuttle program foolproof.

    That is not, imho, a valid argument for waste and failure. If you are going to go to the moon, you must accept that there will be at least a little risk involved.

    However, risk mitigation (and other apparently valid arguments) are good justifications for thumb-twirling waste. "It's not perfect... just... give us a touch more money and time..."

    No, at some point you must test the d@mned thing. Just bite the bullet and do it. They weren't sure what would happen when the first A-bomb went off, either. If you're going to try, try, and accept that you might fail. Neurotic lack of self-confidence can always lead to justifying a few more dollars and a touch more time.