Two Important Space Milestones

We've had two important space milestones these past few days. Though neither represent a breakthrough in the what, both are breakthroughs for the who, and the how.


I am talking about the departure from Earth orbit of India's Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), and the SpaceX's first geosynchronous satellite launch, the SES 8 mission.


MOM being placed in vacuum test chamber.


Both are significant for various reasons.




India now has become only the fourth nation to send a spacecraft to Mars, and the first developing nation to even try. The craft was launched from Earth a month ago, when it was widely reported, but only left Earth orbit on November 30. The reason it spent nearly a month orbiting Earth was because ISRO, the Indian space agency, designed the mission on a shoestring budget of less than US $70 million, including launcher, spacecraft, and deep space communications infrastructure. A direct launch into a Mars trajectory would have required more fuel, and hence a more massive and expensive launcher. Instead, MOM was gradually raised to higher orbits through a series of burns.


The mission was thus cheaper but more complicated, with each burn being a possible point of failure. This is why only after the final burn can we consider it a great success, especially for a first try with so many new elements and procedures. Now, MOM will reach Mars for certain and barring an unlikely failure, will take images of far higher quality than the original US Mariner fly-by missions. If it manages just one more burn it will also settle into orbit around Mars, where the plan is for it to continue sending images for at least six months, which would be a real triumph of so-called frugal engineering.


The achievement is not merely technological. It is also political. Third world space programs are usually highly constrained by a need to show direct economic or military return. This is why most space advocates in these countries are quick to point out Earth-bound applications such as weather monitoring, disaster monitoring, telecommunications, and so forth. In this world, planetary exploration is for rich nations, not politically correct where hunger still exists.


Yet ISRO dared to conceive and request funds for this mission, with the smallest possible budget. As expected, the critics popped up both inside India and beyond it, stating that a country where people are starving could not "afford" such a thing, though India, like most countries, wastes a great deal of money in other projects with far less reason, such as a gigantic statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, which will cost US $340 million and require 5,000 metric tons of iron.




SpaceX has had a great run lately, having reached the International Space Station in 2012 and again in 2013, docking a Dragon capsule and successfully retrieving it from orbit every time. But every SpaceX mission so far has been to low Earth orbit. For a company founded on the intent to make manned Mars exploration a reality, capability to go further than LEO is an important step. The SES 8 mission was that step. Like India's MOM, this required restarting a rocket up in space, always a moment of doubt. In fact, their first test of such a restart had failed, in the previous Falcon 9 1.1 launch. In that case the failure had no consequence, as all the satellites on the rocket had been delivered to their orbits. The test was meant to flesh out any possible problems in the SES mission, where a failure would have result in the loss of the satellite.



The thing about the Falcon 9 version 1.1 is that it really is a Falcon 9 version 2.0. With one launch done, SpaceX's exceptionally well named COO, Gwynne Shotwell, admitted that Falcon 9 1.1 was anything but a 1.1, and was named that way so they wouldn't scare off clients. The 1.1 version is taller, has about 40% more thrust, different engines on a different engine layout, and a number of other changes that make it a lot more than a minimal incremental improvement as suggested by the name. That such a rocket has now been launched twice, almost directly from the drawing board, is another triumph of frugal engineering, though of a different style. The Falcon 9 is cheaper by far than any other rocket in its class and it is the only rocket in the entire US fleet designed entirely in this century, while other commercial launchers have heritage going back to the 1950's and 1960's.




Failure of either one of these missions would have had important consequences. SpaceX is still young and space industry incumbents and their Washington enablers have every reason to try to paint any misstep as proof that the company is not reliable, while conservatives especially would have taken the opportunity to slam Elon Musk for taking US Government money in the form of NASA contracts. In India, if ISRO was criticized for spending money on a successful mission, one can only imagine what would have happened had the launch failed.


To anybody who cares about space exploration, these have been very good days.


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I'm not sure these are really milestones

HankP's picture

It's good that India is developing space technology, and it's good that SpaceX has been successful in their missions. But these are all things that the US and USSR were doing 50 years ago. I guess it's an improvement that they're doing it on the cheap (although I don't know what a mission like these from the 60s would cost in inflation adjusted dollars) but I don't see them as pushing any kind of envelope on what's possible.


I blame it all on the Internet

I Kind Of Stated That


I did say that they are not milestones in the what.


But yes I think they are milestones. Cost is a qualitative milestone, as is ownership. A home PC isn't just cheaper than a mainframe. It enables entirely different uses. Cheap access to space completely changes potential launch manifests, as does access by developing nations.

I am not a pessimist. I am an incompetent optimist.

Yes, and


if they can do the first one for $70M they can almost certainly do the next one even cheaper.

And I'd Go Further


I would even say that a technical feat that costs a zillion dollars isn't really a milestone either, unless those zillion dollars would be startup, as opposed to operational costs.


So for example, the capacity of the Shuttle orbiter to be reused was really meaningless because the cost of each mission was so high in comparison to launch tonnage, that reusability was economically worthless. So the Shuttle turned out to be a non-milestone milestone, not because they were expensive to build, but because they were also expensive to run, without even getting to the reliability part.

I am not a pessimist. I am an incompetent optimist.

But but but, ISRO=government funded space exploration

mmghosh's picture

and the statue is being built via a PPP!  Where's catchy when you need him?

The monument will be built on a Public Private Partnership model, with most of the money raised by public contribution.


The iron needed for this statue and other structures will be collected from farmers of villages all around India in a form of donation of their used farming instruments. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Rashtriya Ekta Trust set up 36 offices across India to collect this iron instruments[4] till the construction starts on January 26, 2014.

And we have the temerity to laugh at Creation Museums.  Fortunately, fascism has a unique attraction for the ridiculous. We can only hope that farmers sensibly refuse to "donate" iron, which means someone will have to "buy" it off them.

I Am Going To Guess


I don't know, but I am going to guess that those farmers will receive substantial incentives, or punishment, depending on their willingness to fork over some iron.

I am not a pessimist. I am an incompetent optimist.

$70M to Mars is very impressive


Guessing from what went wrong on previous trips,  isn't the Mars orbit insertion the hardest part?

Not that I know of


The lost missions have failed in nearly all stages. Landers of course have additional failure modes in reentry, landing, and operation on the surface. I'd say it's difficult all around.

I am not a pessimist. I am an incompetent optimist.

Being Criticized For Running A Successful Space Program. . .

M Scott Eiland's picture

. . .is a sign that they've arrived. One hopes that their carping idiots become as marginalized on that issue as ours were (Walter Mondale showed up in From The Earth To The Moon as the face of the liberals nipping at the space program's heels during the Apollo program--one assumes that he does not feel inclined to brag about that part of his resume these days).

The universe may well have been created without a point--that doesn't imply that we can't give it one.



how does "exploring outer space" fit into your three duties of government?


1. The first duty of government is to protect its citizens and invited guests from aggressive use of force by those from outside its borders;
2. The second duty of government is to protect its citizens and invited guests from those within its borders who would use force and fraud against them (including citizens, invited guests, and other persons);
3. The third duty of government is to protect its citizens and invited guests from itself, as thoroughly as is possible given the first two duties.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
-George Bernard Shaw

#1, #2, and #3


1.  Preempt potential alien invaders.

2.  New open planets give people an escape route if things get really bad.

3.  Money spent on space exploration doesn't get spent on jackboots and brown uniforms.


Seriously, publicly funded space exploration is not popular with purist libertarians, precisely because it doesn't fit in Scott's Three Laws.  However, it at least isn't an active violation of Amendments 1-9 or 13-15.

Good Question

M Scott Eiland's picture

I'll deal with it in two parts:

1) Since we don't actually run a fully compliant "Three Laws" government, there's no reason that the space program should have to follow rules that far less useful areas of potential expenditure don't have to follow.

OK, now to actually analyze the situation assuming that space exploration *did* have to pass a "Three Laws" test to exist:

1a) In the context of the Cold War, Sputnik I, and the concept of "high ground" in general, the United States' manned and unmanned space programs fell quite easily under the First Law--the United States could not cede technological supremacy to the Soviet Union in an area that provided obvious avenues of attack and espionage that could not be adequately addressed without having space flight abilities of their own. Tom Wolfe wrote a fun little book about this subject matter--they even made a movie out of it! :

[scene with a bunch of important Americans saying "oh, crap" after Sputnik launches begins at 0:43:40]

Of course, space flight ultimately led to a lot of useful stuff that implicated the Second Law (and, when abused, the Third Law), but it pretty clearly meets the test of being related to national defense/survival.

1b) Ideally, the space program in a fully Three Laws compliant society would have either emphasized private involvement more thoroughly (giving them a stake in keeping it going full blast after the moon landings), or taken an approach more inclined to longer term military usages (by eschewing the "spam in a can" route to orbit and continuing the X-15 and X-20 programs, which would have certainly led to greater advances in technology in that area that would have improved both military and civilian aircraft by leaps and bounds. In the sense that this path was not taken, the space program in general and Apollo in particular failed to reach its potential. But the actuality of it was enough to move even someone who certainly was not fond of government projects:

What we had seen, in naked essentials—but in reality, not in a work of art—was the concretized abstraction of man's greatness.

The fundamental significance of Apollo 11’s triumph is not political; it is philosophical; specifically, moral-epistemological.

The meaning of the sight lay in the fact that when those dark red wings of fire flared open, one knew that one was not looking at a normal occurrence, but at a cataclysm which, if unleashed by nature, would have wiped man out of existence—and one knew also that this cataclysm was planned, unleashed, and controlled by man, that this unimaginable power was ruled by his power and, obediently serving his purpose, was making way for a slender, rising craft. One knew that this spectacle was not the product of inanimate nature, like some aurora borealis, or of chance, or of luck, that it was unmistakably human—with “human,” for once, meaning grandeur—that a purpose and a long, sustained, disciplined effort had gone to achieve this series of moments, and that man was succeeding, succeeding, succeeding! For once, if only for seven minutes, the worst among those who saw it had to feel—not "How small is man by the side of the Grand Canyon!"—but “How great is man and how safe is nature when he conquers it!”

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt—this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being—an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

Frustration is the leitmotif in the lives of most men, particularly today—the frustration of inarticulate desires, with no knowledge of the means to achieve them. In the sight and hearing of a crumbling world, Apollo 11 enacted the story of an audacious purpose, its execution, its triumph, and the means that achieved it—the story and the demonstration of man’s highest potential.


The universe may well have been created without a point--that doesn't imply that we can't give it one.

That's a Selective Recollection


Especially considering that Liberal Patron Sain Uber Alles, JFK, was the one who proposed the moon shot in the first place, and set it into motion.


Space is one of those rare issues where pro and con people can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. Though usually the extremes of both are against space exploration, if for different reasons that nevertheless amount to "it's a luxury we can't afford".

I am not a pessimist. I am an incompetent optimist.


M Scott Eiland's picture

Not that JFK would survive long as a Democratic politician today, but he certainly deserves the credit for boosting the space program after early setbacks.

The universe may well have been created without a point--that doesn't imply that we can't give it one.

"Not that JFK would survive long as a Democratic politician




Sure, that's the same deep thinking that classifies Mussolini and Hitler as liberals.


JFK was strong on defense and a deficit-cutting, economic centrist. He couldn't be more at home in today's D party, not that I personally care one whit which party claims him.

John Glenn is a Democrat


There are many Democrats who favor space exploration. My comment was not about JFK alone.


Rather, I meant to show that interest in Space is mostly orthogonal to the left-right spectrum. Most politicians don't really care. Some energetically oppose it, and some are true believers. Kennedy and New Gingrich probably have nothing in common, except space advocacy and (now) being Catholic.

I am not a pessimist. I am an incompetent optimist.