Reader Request Week 2009 #3: Space!

Liz asks:

If you could, would you go into Space?

The short answer: Sure, as long as someone else paid for it.

The longer answer, yes, but I resent the fact that a decade into the 21st century the only way I could get into space at this point is to spend $20 million or so to strap myself onto a rocket whose basic design has not changed in 50 years, and launch myself toward an “international space station” where for three days I’ll be confined to an area not much larger than a bus, with a toilet that may or may not function. I mean, hell. If that’s how I wanted to spend three days, I could take a Greyhound from Boston to San Diego. Yes, I’d be weightless and the view would be nice, but you could tie me to a ballon and put a picture of the Earth on a big screen HDTV, and that would be 90% of the experience right there. Here in 2009, I should be able to visit a real space station, one that rotates for artificial gravity and is large enough to house more than a couple of Russian cosmonauts sullenly babysitting whatever middle-aged American millionaire has paid to go into space this time. It sucks that I can’t.

This goes back to a question I see peppered in the request thread, which is: What the hell happened to going into space? What happened to it, bluntly, is that the cold war collapsed and thus we felt we no longer had to justify the expense of putting humans into space, especially when robots and spacecraft can do whatever we could do better and cheaper. In practice, I don’t have a problem with this, because a manned space program is expensive and one really does have to question the value of humans in space when pretty much everything they can do can be done better with machines. In theory, I suspect that there could be some value of having a significant human outpost in near space — or could have been, had we used the moon shots as a stepping stone for a further manned presence of space, rather than patriotic cock-swinging, to be zipped up once we showed those damn Soviets who was the boss of space. Our hearts just weren’t into staying in space; we proved we could get to the moon, after all. What more do you want? But we could have made it work — made it so that a human presence in near space, at the very least, would be something useful and enduring and complementary to our machine-based presence in space.

But we didn’t, and now for the near future our manned space presence will be confined to the decidedly unromantic ISS and a few entrepreneurs catering to the rich who want to tell their friends how they did that whole Yuri Gagarin thing. And while I wouldn’t spend the ridiculous amounts of money currently required to do that — this science fiction writer could think of better things to do with that money, starting with drawing down his mortgage — if someone wanted to front me the trip rather than using the money to, say, feed hungry orphans, I’d take it. It’d be fun to write about afterward. I just hope the toilet works when I get up there.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

56 replies on “Reader Request Week 2009 #3: Space!”

Well, when the Pan Am shuttle goes up to the magnificent spinning wheel of a nice, shiny new space station and I can make a videophone call on the Bell Network, THAT’S when I’m going!

Always thinking of yourself before hungry orphans…

When will the “Send Scalzi To Space So We Can Read The Snarky Whatever Post” fund start? I got $1.25 that I am willing to donate.

Hey! I never said ONE WAY!!!

You know, for a sci-fi writer, you’re surprisingly skeptical about near-future space developments :)

The government programs aren’t going anywhere, but I expect you’ll get to travel to space for a more reasonable price (5 figures) within the next 2 decades, if not the next decade. Many private companies are working on it–SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, etc. SpaceShipTwo is scheduled to begin flights by the end of 2010.

What’s the lowest price point where you’d pay for a trip to orbit?

For the long-term survival prospects of humanity, it would be nice if we could eventually not keep all our eggs in the rather fragile basket of this one planet. But, yeah, that’s going to be astoundingly difficult and expensive until something like fusion power becomes feasible and cheap.

Back when I was a kid, my parents took us to Disney and to Cape Canaveral. This must have been around 1976-77. I was CONVINCED that I would be working on the moon, or at least a space station by now. Unfortunately, NASA has become risk averse (which is odd, since it brought in the most risk seeking people it could at the start), and no one else with the money to do it seems all that interested in leaving the planet.

Me – I’d love to see an array of space elevators ringed around the moon. Lower gravity, no ionosphere, less people to crush should it collapse into it’s anchor. Ah well.

Actually the other countries are picking up the slack – with governments willing (and able) to fund increasing space programs. My guess is that we will have a larger permanent presence in space in the near future, it just won’t have an American flag painted on the side.

If you want weightlessness, great sights, and total dependence on technology for your every breath, Expedia will set you up with a dive vacation to the Caymans for considerably less than any rocket out of the gravity well ever will. That’s ignoring the fact that 1 fatal crash out of 100 flights is simply not a probability that I’m comfortable with. Even if someone else paid, I’m not going.

Well, given the current economic climate, that’s likely to change too.

None of the propulsion advancements proposed in SF have come to pass. As long as it costs about $20,000 (if I remember correctly) to get a kilogram to orbit, we won’t have much presence there. So how do you think we should get the young scientists and engineers more involved in making space accessible?

I’ve flown fixed wing and helicopters and gone skydiving. hell yeah, I’d go into space.

waaaay back when, when people thought we’d have giant ring-shaped space stations in a few years, I read that there was a lot of tritium on the moon, and I thought if we ever figured out fusion, we’d probably be going to war in space over it.

But other than that, there doesn’t seem to be much payback for space work. When I worked on satellites, we designed for a brutal environment (radiation seriously messes up electronics, vacuum of space meant all heat had to be vented as infrared, and things only seem to be good for a few years), and it cost a fortune for every ounce you added to the design.

Something definitely didn’t pan out compared to the predictions.

This goes back to a question I see peppered in the request thread, which is: What the hell happened to going into space? What happened to it, bluntly, is that the cold war collapsed […]

You are off by decades, I am afraid. The budget for this sort of thing in the US peaked in the 1960s, because the US had more important things to spend its money on than sending people into space. See, for example, how several of the Apollo missions were simply cancelled, and how the US allowed long periods during which they could not launch humans into space to occur even as the Soviets kept their manned programs going.

Just for giggles, check out the archives for the groups during the Reagan years of the late Cold War.

The US does have a pretty healthy interest in space probes. I cannot offhand remember if their budget is larger than any one other nations or all other nations combined but whichever, it’s impressive. Note how many of these

are American efforts.

I read that there was a lot of tritium on the moon

Are you sure you are not thinking of helium three? It is thought to be common in lunar regolith, where common = vanishingly rare and energetically expensive to filter out from the regolith, and could be useful for aneutronic fusion, where aneutronic means actually, there are side-reactions that release neutrons but lets not talk about that and fusion means something people talk about to avoid discussing energy production options we will actually have in the next few decades.

Wouldn’t it be cheaper to send Ghalghghee into space? Cinsder the advantages: lower mass, can clean the ISS of vermin, entertaining twitter feed, zero-G catbox…

Are you sure you are not thinking of helium three?

I think I was in grade school at the time, so I’m a little fuzzy. The word “tritium” does seem to be the word my brain wants to attach to the memory, but what does it know, every time I ask it “who was that actor…” it always comes back with “Christopher Walken”.

martinl @ 15: Wouldn’t it be cheaper to send Ghalghghee into space? Cinsder the advantages: lower mass, can clean the ISS of vermin, entertaining twitter feed, zero-G catbox…

Finally free of the annoyances of Anteater-thing…

it would be nice if we could eventually not keep all our eggs in the rather fragile basket of this one planet.

Given how hard it is to live on the moon, doesn’t it seem likely that we’d have a better chance of adapting to a suboptimal version of this planet rather than trying to put ourselves on the moon, or Venus, or even Mars?

I can’t remember if it was in Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” or elsewhere, but I saw a convincing opinion from a space science expert which basically went like this:

1) Even after Europe became aware of North America, it was at least 100 to 150 years before anyone in Europe really did anything about North America. On a large scale.

2) It took a long time for the inertia to build — past those first, key voyages across the sea — and we might be seeing something similar with space colonization. Right now there still isn’t enough inertia to drive a wholesale colonization effort. The modes of transport into LEO and GEO and beyond are still too expensive, and there isn’t enough of a reason for people to go into space on a large scale.

I know it was absolutely in “Pale Blue Dot” that Sagan opined that the initial space rate, circa 1950’s thru 1970’s, was not about space exploration or even reaching the moon. It was about the USA and the USSR going mano i mano to see who could develop the best ICBM technology. The moon race being the nominally ‘peaceful’ window dressing on this ICBM battle.

In a certain sense, we’re still coasting off our initial Cold War push. There has been nothing to replace the monomaniacal drive that propelled both nations — and both economies — towards space. And of course, once the objective were achieved, the impetus fell away and suddenly lots of people were asking, “What is space for anyway?”

I’d highly recommend “Pale Blue Dot” as an intelligent, provacative exploration of this topic. Sadly for us in the 21st century, it might be a few more hundred years before we even begin to approach something like a widely-spread interplanetary culture.

The other answer is of course the government and NASA have stifled innovation not allowing commercial space development to take off.

Why does the answer have to be “the government must do it”

It’s not incredibly expensive as technocrats want you to believe. Look at the startups now. The USA is going to be behind the rest of the world soon, precisely because of NASA and our government wanting to control everything we do in space.

my own take on the atrophication (is that a word?) of the space program is that after our reaching the moon, funding for NASA got diverted to other, sexier uses. like, waging war. we lost our vision. the space shuttle program was ridiculously cumbersome and inefficient from the get-go, a bone thrown to those with the desire to EXPLORE. as to robots vs. humans, no doubt they’re more efficient $$-wise. but where’s the romance in that? remember when they wanted to send the original Mercury 7 astronauts up in capsules without a window, and the 7 said “hell no, we’re pilots, not cargo”? we need both robots and people — sign me up.

@ Sub-Odeon #19: “1) Even after Europe became aware of North America, it was at least 100 to 150 years before anyone in Europe really did anything about North America. On a large scale.”

But it only took about 50 years for Brazil and Spain to carve themselves empires in Southern America. Both dynasties were engaged in a competition as heated as the USA/USSR was during the Cold War… Only it was to determine whoever got their hands first on the New World gold and silver.

On the other side of the planet and a century earlier, there was the discovery of Africa by Chinese navigators, who did nothing about it because nobody in China was really interested about it. The famous admiral Zheng He went as far as Egypt and established diplomatic relations between the Emperor of China and the sultan of Malindi (Kenya), but it was basically a exchange of ceremonial presents and not much more. It didn’t even result in significant trade between the two continents. Apparently, the Ming dynasty didn’t have much use for far-off foreign countries.

For a cheaper alternative being examined, check out the n-prize ( – going into space for 999 pounds (money)


to put into orbit around the Earth a satellite with a mass of between 9.99 and 19.99 grams, and to prove that it has completed at least 9 orbits.

Hm, I remember doing these kinds of calculations in chemistry or physics or somewhere, but I cannot for the life of remember how. The question is how much fuel would it take to get 20 grams into orbit? And can you even buy that much fuel for less that two thousand dollars? let alone put it in an engine and airframe.

Also, isn’t “orbit” a lot harder to get than “space”. I recall watching some program (physics for future presidents, maybe) that said the fuel to get into “orbit” was about 20x more than the fuel needed to simply get up into “space” and fall back down.

I’m thinking there’s a decided anti-science bent in the country today. Engineering and sciences are too hard to study and understand, and engineers and scientists never fare well in the popular media. Your typical portrayal of a scientist is either amorally evil or a bumbling buffoon.

And you can get a lot more votes using a few billion bucks to build playgrounds than you can to send guys with shiny toys back to the moon.

You can get a rough idea of the mass ratio needed from

M1/M0 = e^(delta vee/v.ex)


M1 is the mass of the fueled rocket
M0 is the mass of the unfueled rocket
e is the base of the natural logs (~2.71)
delta vee is the total velocity change
v.ex is the exhaust velocity of the rocket

V.ex in rockets might vary from 3 km/s for your RP1/LOX rockets to 4 km/s for H2/LOX. Delta vee to orbit is as low as 8 km/s if for some reason you don’t have to worry about issues like wind resistance but in practice it might be closer to 10 km/s.

You can lob something in an arc that reaches Low Earth Orbit at its peak for about 4 km/s delta vee (To put it another way, any rocket that can put a payload into LEO can also put a larger payload into terrestrial real estate owned by the rocket owner’s primary rival).

And can you even buy that much fuel for less that two thousand dollars?

Reaction mass is one of the cheapest components involved. LOX runs pennies a kilogram. H2, which is one of the more expensive fuels, is under $4/kg. The fuel and oxydizer a rocket uses could be free and it would not affect the bottom line much.

What costs is:

1: Rockets will run you something like a grand a kilogram to build IIRC (which is on par with aircraft).

2: You only get to use them once (and so far we don’t have reusables that are not effectively rebuilt after each use).

3: Advanced space systems tend to have a lot of ground crew associated with them. IIRC, the ISS emplys one highly trained and expensive person per kilogram of space station.

Someone needs to find gold and silver on the moon, basically. Or put more generally, someone needs to find something that generates a lot of money that requires building a hell of a lot of infrastructure offplanet. Solar power might do it. Scientific research may be dear to our hearts but probably won’t.

On the other hand, the day a guy can make 10% a year return on his investment via space is the day you can figure to book a ticket in a decade.


so, say total velocity change is 8 km/s, and exhaust velocity is 4 km/s. that gives an exponent of 2.

2.71 ^ 2 = 7.3

mass(fueled) / mass (unfueled) = 7.3

mass(fueled) = 7.3 * mass(unfueled)


So, if I have an empty rocket that weighs 100 kg, it will have a mass(fueled) of 730 kg? 630 kg of fuel? for a 100 kg rocket?

Did I do that math correct?

If so…. wow.

Cicada @28, gold and silver? How about uranium? Yes, it’s cheaper than gold or silver, but it’s actually useful.

Space travel is hard and I’m not sure that you can really blame the end of the cold war on that. Even if we stopped being interested in strutting our manly stuff on the moon, we are still blasting enormous amounts of stuff into orbit (as are many other countries), so there is an incentive to reduce costs and yet that’s still really, really expensive and risky. Private industry might lower that (see SpaceX), but that’s going to be incremental. You aren’t going to get a Virgin Galactic flight to the Steve Wynn Space Casino on incremental reductions in cost – you need something that will drop the price of space travel by a factor of 100 or more (like the space elevator. Well, like the space elevator would be if it weren’t completely, awesomely, batshit insane).

Someone needs to find gold and silver on the moon

I seem to remember being told when I was working on satellite design that it cost more than its weight in gold to put anything on the satellite. I was working on some electronics that was having problems dealing with the radiation. Sheilding was the simple solution, but it weighed too much (more than its weight in gold). So they had me redesign the electronics to use voting logic with self-correction so that it weighed the same but could handle radiation.

If they found gold on the moon, I don’t think you could bring it down to earth for a profit just yet.

The following is probably because I turned fourteen in 1980.

But it occurs to me that it was only from Reagan onwards that the retort I’d always hear, when discussing why we should be expending resources on a manned presence in space, was the question “How will someone make money from that?”

Has bothered me a lot. Yes, you can theoretically make money from millionares via space tourism. But the reality of it is that, for quite a long while, we won’t be making money from being in space.

And I’m sure it’s mostly that I happened to turn 14 when Reagan was elected, and people have always been this way — but it really seemed to me that we sold our souls to Mammon at that moment: that if it couldn’t make you money, no one was interested.

We didn’t create a robust manned presence in space because our society has no imagination anymore.

@31 AlanM- Nope, that’d be gold or silver. Or whatever has the highest sale price.
If you want people to start investing in space travel, you have to bear in mind that they will literally be investing in space travel. They’ll want to make money back if they’re expected to put money in, otherwise they’ll toss it into investments that do generate funds.
As infrastructure develops, it gets cheaper to go back and forth, and you can start doing things that generate less money because your overhead is lower.
But to get the first investment started, the return needs to be high.

@32- Not sure about that– given that it’d be much easier to build a space elevator on the moon rather than earth, return costs could be quite cheap indeed…it’s just a hell of a bit up-front cost.

I find myself just slightly ahead of the knowledge curve, where many comments are concerned here. I am not about to address them all. I like reading short posts, so that’s what I write.

The #1 most profitable mining to be done on the Moon is extracting the copious amounts of Helium 3 in the regolith. Where it is not profitable to go to the Moon even if platinum bars were stacked neatly and waiting, it is *very* cost effective to go get the Helium 3. The Chinese are hot to go… Speaking of “patriotic cock-swinging”, we will need to show those darned Chinese just how cool we are and get our mining going, before they do.

Someone mentioned Isp and delta vee, etc. Chemical rocketry is so passé. It has been, ever since Freeman Dyson got involved with General Atomics, Inc. I will provide one link and fully expect any nay-sayers to actually *read* the book prior to yelling at me:

Thanks for your time.

Charlie Stross had a good blog posting of why there never will be people in space in any numbers. It boils down to: space (including earth orbit, the moon, Mars, etc) is a very unhealthy environment for primates.

In the absence of magic wand technology, Earth is where we will stay.

Cicada #34, if there is too much gold/silver on the moon then the price drops and it stops being worth it. That can happen for uranium, of course, but uranium actually has real value (in the sense that you can use it to make energy. Gold and silver are, in general, valued because they are rare and pretty). However, uranium is so cheap that you are probably right.

Econ heads – is there a term for the thing that I’m talking about, real value? My thought is that if we all had an unlimited amount of gold then we aren’t rich, but if we had an unlimited amount of uranium then we can produce energy. Of course, I’m full of crap, because the cost of nuclear power plants isn’t the uranium, it’s everything else. I guess. Still, there is some point lurking in my comments, I think.

@36 JReynolds- Most of earth is a very unhealthy environment for primates; it’s just a matter of getting the right technology to deal with it. Pick up a human and drop him onto a random spot on earth (the land part, anyhow) and chances are he’ll be dead in a month or two without intervention.

@37 AlanM- As far as I can see, it’s all the same thing: uranium and gold are just steps on a path of getting you (or someone else) what they want out of life. You can have someone pay you gold for your uranium and buy gadgets with it, or have a bunch of gold and pay someone for uranium and build a power plant to power the factory that makes gadgets.
When they want corn in Kansas they plant corn. When they want corn in Japan, they start by building a car.

@38 Cicada- With the right technology and experience, a person can live their entire life on Earth without too much difficulty– Inuit in the Arctic, Berbers in the Sahara are examples. If the standard Innu or Berber loses or breaks some piece of of his/her survival technology, they can rebuild it or make a new one with ease.

Your standard human on Mars or in space? If they break a critical piece of equipment, they’re dead in 30 seconds or less. I strongly recommend Stross’s article.

@35 Jeff – Mining He3 from the Moon is profitable? Show me a balance sheet then. I think you mean that mining he3 is the least unprofitable form of minin to be done on the Moon.

As for Project Orion, yes, I’ve read the book. Can I yell at you now? It’s one of those ideas that physicists describe as “perfectly feasible in principle”. At which point the engineers who might have to build one start to back away slowly, and anyone who might be asked to pay for one runs screaming towards the hills.

Jez, nice corrections there. I still think that helium 3 extraction will be profitable, given the right technologies. That is true of many things, though.

To your second correction, yes; it is something scientists run from these days, although we have numerous examples of manned flight being shunned by “real” scientists throughout history. If we look at where the “dreamer” science types want to take the original, pulsed propulsion designs, ‘feasible” becomes “practical”. Again, I stand on the thin ice of future technologies. I read and write science fiction. I am prone to incorporating that which is “about to be” in my thinking. I am every bit as sad as Freeman Dyson, Orion’s demise as a government project; probably more so, as he supports the nuclear test ban treaty on atmospheric detonations.

Liz, great stuff! I guess this makes you an official “Scalzette”?

Bigelow’s stuff is great. Have you watched the video’s?

I too, hope that Virgin Galactic is successful, but we should note that the spaceship they use is only a ballistic trajectory, cut short by Earth’s gravity, where truly achieving an orbit would be better. Still, if it isn’t gravity, there is always something that pulls us back to Earth. For me, it’s Reese’s Butterfinger ice cream. You just can’t afford the payload capacity to take a sufficient amount with you, to orbit.

31: Cicada @28, gold and silver? How about uranium? Yes, it’s cheaper than gold or silver, but it’s actually useful.

A quick look at

shows that we live on one of the best bodies in the Solar System for uranium mining. This is something of an issue with a lot of the materials SF has traditionally had us recover from space: Earth is surprisingly large and its stocks of elements are generally comparable or superior to those found elsewhere.

@39- We’re just quibbling about the duration before being dead now. If you have seconds, you need technology that can fix itself in seconds.
I have read the article, and I agree with you that the majority will probably stay on planet, though.

You know, far ocean exploration here on earth happened – guess how? 95% on gummint tabs. Erik the Red might be the only exception, because he got there by a process of colonizing farther and farther places, untiil, well, Greenland wasn’t fatally far from Newfoundland.

Once the caravel was invented, something that could make it far enough, in Europe, most exploration was kicked off by one Prince Henry of Portugal, who explored the African Coast farther and farther until they got to India. One Chris Columbus, of course, was famously gummint-subsidized. China’s Zheng Ho was paid for by his Emperor. The UK gummint subsidized virtually all its early exploration and tech development, and directly carried out the finishing out of the maps by assigning the RN to it after the Napoleonic Wars were over and there was a vast oversupply of ships.

The death rate on all the early exploration voyages was insane – 80-90%; just think about that. Book after book written by people who lived through early Spanish colonization paint quite the picture of clueless and arrogant early navigators, who would tell you they’d land you right where Ponce de Leon landed, and lose their tiny ships to reefs on the very opposite end of the Gulf of Mexico – Texas instead of Florida. The best you could hope for was to merely be delayed months by the navigators. Death rates and positional ignorance slowly, slowly shrank as people learned the tricks, but stayed high right up to one Cap’n Cook you might’ve heard of, centuries later, the first man to lose little of his crew and to actually know where he was.

Jeff, this engineer thinks Liz got it right on engineers running away. I mean, unless you don’t care about serious irradiation and pollution coming to YOUR home and everybody else’s. There’s another version of it built far from Earth, but I’ve been missing the answer to how much all those way-heavy nuclear warheads would cost to move to said location in current tech. You could mine uranium, but the cost of setting up the mines and 238-concentration apparatus right now is far worse still. You could just live with one or two lifts to get the warheads up, but the first one or two of anything are unreliable, and the world’s skanked if that one blows up.

30: Did I do that math correct?

Yes, except I remembered the value of e incorrectly. It’s 2.72 so e^2 is closer to 7.4 than 7.3.

The good news is that the v.ex value is for hydrogen and oxygen and the LOX – which is very cheap – will be bulk of the mix. I get a oxydizer and fuel cost of very roughly $2.00/kg of payload, so the o&f cost for 100 kg dry mass rocket would be a couple of hundred dollars. Kerosene would be even cheaper even though you need a larger mass ratio and would avoid most of the issues you run into with hydrogen.

I think it’s mind-boggling that today — nearly 150 years since the invention of the internal combustion engine — we’re *still* reliant on petro-fuels. I mean, it’s only 90 years since Philo T. Farnsworth (et al.) came up with the television, and today you can watch it on a postage-stamp-sized organic LED embedded in your cell phone.

Our science remains blindingly short-sighted, and that’s a bummer.

Fossil fuels are cheap and liquid hydrocarbon fuels have a very nice energy density, both in terms of Joules/volume and Joules/mass. They’re also conveniently liquid at room temperature and lack the issues fuels like hydrogen have. Fossil fuels may go by the wayside but it wouldn’t surprise me if we then used chemically similar or identical synthetic fuels.

Jon Kay@49: Yeah, radiation sucks. Still, if time and money are the most important factors, the N-Word will rapidly become vogue once again. All the blather about chemical reactions will be relegated to grade school science projects and modern home cooking shows on public television, as WWII, battleship-size vehicles leisurely flit between here and Saturn in three weeks.

Besides, engineers are paid to say “no” a lot. If you put engineers in a tight spot, they will get it done. My money still sits with the efficacy of the concept as applied to any interstellar travel. Nothing else is even remotely realistic.

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