Sunday, October 25, 2009

Paul Spudis: Paradigms Lost

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. – Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.

In his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn described two types of science: normal science, the everyday background work, where constant, steady but unspectacular advances occur in our knowledge, and revolutionary science, where fundamental assumptions and ways of conducting business are unalterably changed forever. Kuhn called such a change a paradigm shift; a new paradigm (i.e., a framework of knowledge, including the assumptions, worldview, approaches and techniques to conduct business under a given set of circumstances) replaces the existing one and the new approaches and attitudes become the norm.

The paradigm model might also be applied to conducting business in other fields, in particular, the business of spaceflight. Since it arose more than 50 years ago, the paradigm of spaceflight has largely remained unchanged. In short, we conceive a mission (robotic or human), then design, build and launch a spacecraft to conduct that mission. This satellite or spacecraft operates for a time in space—gathering information or providing a service—until it breaks down or becomes obsolete and is abandoned. We then imagine the next mission—going back to the drawing board to design the next spacecraft—a process repeated continuously and a major cost of space exploration.

Is a paradigm shift – a “revolution” in space travel possible? One would think that with 50 years of experience under our belts, we would have already exhausted all the possibilities. Indeed, the imminent development of warp drive or “Cavorite” does not seem likely, but then, that’s the nature of truly revolutionary breakthroughs, isn’t it? On the other hand, is there something missing – something that could be done right now using existing knowledge to change the rules of spaceflight and possibly spur additional breakthroughs?

As long as we’re chained to the existing spaceflight paradigm, we must continue hauling from Earth everything we need in space. For human missions this includes all the air, water and other consumables needed for life support. The cost to lift all this mass (which includes the weight of a massive amount of fuel needed to escape from Earth’s very deep gravity well) is budget busting. So for “normal” space exploration, costs will never be lower except at the margins and we will always be mass-limited in space. And when you are mass-limited, you are capability-limited as well.

I’ve argued here and elsewhere that there is a method that is already well understood in principle, but its practical application and viability is completely unknown. If we could use what we find in space to create new capabilities, we would change the rules of spaceflight, thereby ushering in a true paradigm shift in space travel.

Such was the original intent of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). The desire for fundamental change in perspective was behind the program’s specific direction to study and experiment with using the material and energy resources of the Moon. From the moment it was announced, the true purpose of a lunar return was misunderstood, both inadvertently and deliberately. Constellation is a rocket program; the VSE is not.

No one knows if using space resources is possible but we can find out by pursuing innovative technology. In theory it works. We’ve never attempted high-risk mining on the Moon and it may have significant practical difficulties but potentially, it could become a highly leveraging activity.

If we can extract and make rocket propellant on the Moon, we can create a completely reusable, refuelable transportation infrastructure in cislunar space. If we can extract the oxygen and hydrogen, we can live in space. Of course, such an outcome would change and transform the business model of space—something that fascinates and attracts many but repels others and hence, its mixed reception in aerospace circles.

This would truly be a revolution, a paradigm shift in the same sense as we understand it from Kuhn’s description of scientific progress; as a vast new expanse is opened to us and we are free to move about the universe, the world changes and things are never the same again.

In order to mitigate risk and to ensuring our economic and national security, government often steps in to develop technology that the private sector cannot or will not take on. A government push to learn how to use the resources of space will break the cycle of launch and discard. Instead of having a short “shelf-life,” our indispensable and unprotected systems in space become maintainable, reusable, extensible and affordable.

While reading the newly released Augustine report, keep in mind its background and its assumptions. It is based solidly on the traditional models of conducting business in space – design, launch and abandon, along with the accompanying plea for more money to ensure a “robust” program of space exploration.

As long as such assumptions prevail, advances never will.

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