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Dyson on Space

by John G. Cramer

Alternate View Column AV-30
Keywords: Dyson, space, program, NASA, Apollo, moon, lunar, megaproject
Published in the Mid-December-1988 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact Magazine;
This column was written and submitted 6/6/88 and is copyrighted ©1988, John G. Cramer. All rights reserved.
No part may be reproduced in any form without the explicit permission of the author.


    Prof. Freeman Dyson was a visitor for two weeks at the University of Washington, where I'm a member of the Physics Faculty. He presented a series lectures dealing broadly with the problems of large scientific projects and with strategies for success in such endeavors. I'd been in London during the early part of his visit, but I returned just in time to attend his last lecture, which was devoted to the past and future of the U. S. space program. We also had a lively and wide-ranging conversation over lunch on the last day of his visit. This column, based on this lecture and conversation, is a report on Prof. Dyson's views on our troubled space program.

    Freeman Dyson has a well-deserved reputation as a truly original thinker. He helped to conceive Project Orion, a hydrogen-bomb-powered starship concept, and his name is associated with the Dyson sphere, the ultimate solar-energy based civilization. Whenever there are two conflicting opinions on a controversial technical subject, be it disarmament, nuclear power, or construction of big accelerators, Dyson can be depended upon to propose a strikingly original third opinion, always logical and well-considered, which bears little resemblance to either of the other two. In the case of the space program his views stand in striking contrast to those of both the "Get humans into space at whatever cost" camp and the "Dump manned spaceflight and do space science with machines" advocates.

    Dyson, who characterizes himself as a "hard-core space cadet", feels, in essence, that men and machines both have their places in space, and that a balanced scientific program of exploration and discovery must exploit the strengths of both. He also feels that scientific priorities should rate far higher in decision making than has been the case in any of NASA's manned endeavors, from Mercury and Apollo to the Shuttle and the Space Station project.

    Dyson's lecture started by discussing "a path not taken", Werner von Braun's bold 1952 proposal for a manned expedition to explore Mars. Von Braun described a massive undertaking requiring 46 ferry vessels (shuttles) transporting 37,000 tons of hardware into Earth orbit, where equipment would be assembled to move 70 men and 4,200 tons of equipment into Mars orbit, from which 50 men and 150 tons of equipment would descend in three ships on the surface of the planet. The expedition would have used essentially WWII technology, and von Braun estimated that it would cost "about as much as a minor military expedition in a limited theater of war."

    Dyson contrasted this dream with the realities of the Apollo project that came to fruition 15 years later. Von Braun had naively specified a 1 kHz bandwidth for the communication channel between the Mars expedition and Earth, a channel too narrow for even voice communication. The Mars expedition would have communicated by the equivalent of Morse code. By contrast, Apollo was designed and executed in the glare of international television coverage and required a communication bandwidth thousands of times broader.

    Dyson characterized the Apollo project as a brilliant success precisely because it was "conceived and honestly presented to the public as an international sporting event and not as a contribution to science." This was symbolized by the first item to be unpacked after landing on the Moon's surface, the television camera. He observed that the landings, the comings and goings of the astronauts, the explorations of the Moon's surface, the gatherings of moon rocks, and the earth-ward departures all were expertly choreographed with the cameras placed in the right positions to make a dramatic spectacle for television.

    Scientifically, however, Apollo was a dry hole. No big scientific surprised came from the chemistry of the moon rocks or the magnetic and seismic observations that the astronauts carried out on the lunar surface. It was no surprise, either, that humans were indeed able to walk on the moon, to drive moon buggies, to hit a golf ball, and to bring back moon rocks. The big surprise of Apollo was the high quality of the public entertainment, and this came at a high cost to science.

    Dyson then speculated on how some hypothetical NASA with an active interest in science might have structured the Apollo project within the same time and cost boundaries to produce good science as well as good entertainment. The main thing that was lacking in Apollo for good science was time. The 6 Apollo landings each placed 2 astronauts on the lunar surface for up to 3 days with about 2 tons of supplies and equipment for life support and exploration. For all of Apollo there were a total of about 50 man-days of lunar exploration using a total of 12 tons of equipment. That's about 4 man-days of exploration per ton of equipment.

    That's very inefficient. Von Braun envisioned 130 man-days of exploration of Mars per ton of equipment. Dyson suggested that 40 man-days/ton might be a more realistic compromise. If half Apollo's lunar landings had been done by unmanned freight carriers, each of these could have deposited at least 18 tons of additional supplies on the lunar surface. That would have provided a team of six astronauts with 60 tons of supplies and equipment, sufficient for a 400 day mission of lunar exploration. That comes to 2400 man-days of exploration instead of the 50 man-days of Apollo.

    With this much time, Dyson suggested, the Apollo project might have achieved some significant science. There would have been time to explore the lunar poles , to circumnavigate the body, to set up radio-astronomy dishes on the Moon's radio-quiet back side, to take the time to investigate and theorize and observe and test and probe. There would have been the time and opportunity to bring into play those intrinsically human skills which have lead in previous years-long voyages of discovery to new insights and understanding.

    The real Apollo, of course, was carried out in a few days by test pilots operating at a dead run, with one eye on the clock and the other on the prime-time news schedule. There was simply no time for science. Dyson's revisionist version of Apollo is another road not taken.

    Dyson then turned from "the brilliant success of Apollo" to "the dismal failure of the Space Shuttle". The Shuttle was supposed to be cheap, to be reliable, to be easy to service and re-use, and it was supposed to be a frequent flier. Above all, it was supposed to be safe. As it turns out, it is none of these things. Dyson characterized the Shuttle both as a "turkey" and as a "lame horse". A turkey in Air Force slang is a bird that can hardly fly. The Shuttle is a turkey because it can only just fly into a low orbit. It has no margin of safety, no extra capability for taking payloads to the higher orbits needed by many scientific projects. It is a lame horse because as soon as one problem is corrected, another problem appears.

    Dyson remarked that the Shuttle is a prime example of the "Problem of Premature Choice", a prevalent failing of government which he characterized as "betting all your money on one horse before you have found whether she is lame". When a project is sufficiently large that the "waste" of exploring more than one engineering alternative becomes embarrassing to public officials, they find the urge to immediately select one alternative and to kill all the others almost irresistible.

    Dyson suggested that such anticipation of nature is a fundamental mistake. The evolution of science and technology is a Darwinian process of natural selection. Public officials attempt to make the process "more efficient" by short-circuiting the selection process, jumping the gun on nature's choices by pre-selecting one of them, usually the cheapest. It is a paradox that the secret of efficiency in natural selection is waste, the "waste" of providing a number of alternatives that can be tested against one another in true competition. The Shuttle lacked such competition, and our space program is now suffering for it.

    Dyson contrasted the Shuttle with another space project, the International Ultraviolet Explorer or IUE. This little-known space observatory was launched in January, 1978, using a reliable Delta rocket. The Delta, like the Saturn-5 of the Apollo program, has phased out by NASA management, killed to prevent competition with the Shuttle.

    The IUE, with mirrors and optics supplied by NASA, communication electronics from the UK, and a solar power system by the European Space Agency, was designed to operate in a geosynchronous orbit for about 3 years. It has now been operating for more than a decade. During that period it has been used by over 1000 astronomers and astrophysicists to observe for ultraviolet and visible light the wavelength spectra of over 50,000 stellar objects, scientific investigations that have resulted in the publication of over 1,000 scientific papers. The IUE was in orbit when supernova SN1987A burst upon the scientific community and had provided the most detailed and accurate light curves ever measured for this rare stellar event. The Hubble Space Telescope, with 50 times the resolution of IUE and able to study 10,000 times fainter objects, is still waiting on the ground for a working Shuttle to take it into orbit.

    Dyson, having summarized the past 30 years of the space program, concluded his talk with some guesses as to the shape of the next 30 years. He believes that NASA's big and visible projects, the Shuttle and the Space Station, will from the perspective of 30 years in the future appear as quaint and misguided gargantuan ventures in the wrong direction, the von Hindenbergs and Titanics of the late 20th century. He feels that the successful space activities of the future will bear little resemblance to NASA's present long range plans. Manned spaceflight will use new launch technologies that will make chemical rockets seem absurdly inefficient. Most of the basic groundwork of exploring the solar system will be done with "smart" space-faring probes exploiting the emerging techniques of bio-engineering and nanotechnology. The space projects of 30 years in the future will be as far ahead of today's IUE in sophistication and information bandwidth as IUE is ahead of the von Braun's Mars expedition.

    I've just returned from Vancouver, BC, where I was Science Guest of Honor at V-Con. Dr. David Stephenson, a Canadian space scientist, remarked there that each nation seems to play its own national game in space. The Russians play Chess, plotting their moves with a strategy that looks decades into the future. The Japanese play Go, systematically surrounding each technological territory with their pieces until they make it their own. The Europeans play Bridge, kicking a lot under the table while presenting a smooth performance above its surface. And what of the USA? Well, in the 1960's we were playing Monopoly. But now, under the present policies of NASA, we seem to have switched to Trivial Pursuits ...

    By the time you read this some 4-6 months from now, our democratic processes will have elected a new president. He will, among other things, have to decide what to do about the NASA problem. At minimum a new NASA Administrator must be appointed, and perhaps the space agency will also be restructured as some critics are presently suggesting. Will there be further plodding along the dismal path that has lead from the triumph of Apollo to the Challenger Disaster? Will the agency continue to place science far down in the priority queue, going always for the Premature Choice and the job security of mammoth engineering projects. Will NASA continue to withhold any investments in the future, in advanced propulsion technologies, and in new ideas? I hope not.

    I hope that the new President will choose carefully when making the decisions on the new head for NASA and on whether to restructure the agency. The new President can get advice from anyone he chooses. I think that he should have a very long talk with Freeman Dyson.

John G. Cramer's 2016 nonfiction book (Amazon gives it 5 stars) describing his transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, The Quantum Handshake - Entanglement, Nonlocality, and Transactions, (Springer, January-2016) is available online as a hardcover or eBook at: or

SF Novels by John Cramer: Printed editions of John's hard SF novels Twistor and Einstein's Bridge are available from Amazon at and His new novel, Fermi's Question may be coming soon.

Alternate View Columns Online: Electronic reprints of 212 or more "The Alternate View" columns by John G. Cramer published in Analog between 1984 and the present are currently available online at: .

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