January 20, 2006
Moving the Goalposts

New Horizons launched successfully (some might say flawlessly) yesterday -- no doubt to the disappointment of Bruce Gagnon.

So what now? Bruce moves the goalposts...from histrionic opposition to New Horizons only because it had nuclear material aboard, to complaining now about the environmental impact of space launch vehicles as a whole, regardless of what they carry.

The Atlas rocket that carried the New Horizons probe into space punched a bigger hole in the ozone layer above the Earth. The toxic cloud from the rocket also fell onto the Cape Canaveral national seashore "wildlife preserve" where it contaminated the water and fish died as they do after each launch. Birds eat the contaminated fish and die. On through the food chain the killing goes even without a launch pad accident. No one notices and even “space coast environmental groups” don’t talk about it because the space center is the local job creation machine. We learn to look away.
He seems to be under the illusion that KSC/CCAFS is a wildlife sanctuary with a spaceport in the middle of it, rather than a spaceport whose buffer zone doubles as a wildlife sanctuary.

As might be expected, he provides no evidence whatsoever to back up his handwringing assertions of environmental apocalypse. Since he doesn't provide any facts, I will:

  • Stage One: The Atlas V CCB (that would be the fat brown and white thingy in the middle, Bruce) is powered by RP-1 and liquid oxygen. RP-1 is a highly-refined, standardized grade of kerosene...as is jet fuel. An Atlas V CCB carries up to 26,000 gallons of RP-1, a quantity similar to that of a 767-300ER jet, and less than half that of a 747-400. While an Atlas V travels higher than does a commercial jet, spreading combustion products in to the high atmosphere, it only does so every six months or so -- making the largest part of the emissions from a launch a drop in the bucket compared to the emissions produced by the thousands of airliner flights conducted every day (a polluting activity Bruce apparently has no qualms with, seeing as how he has been boasting about his worldwide travel schedule lately).
  • Stage Two: The Centaur upper stage used on Atlas V is the latest version of the cryogenic upper stage, burning liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen...and producing that horrible, toxic pollutant known as steam. Not that that is particularly relevant to this discussion, since the Centaur is well above the ozone layer when it fires.
  • Stage Three: The third stage is a Boeing Star 48B solid rocket, but again, it's out of the atmosphere by the time this stage fires, so it's not relevant to the discussion.
  • Stage Zero: For the Atlas V-551 configuration used on New Horizons (the extreme case for Atlas V's with solids), five strap-on SRBs are used. While they burned out at an altitude of 23mi (about 2/3 of the way through the stratosphere, where 90% of the "ozone layer" resides), leaving a trail of chlorine compounds behind them, five Atlas SRBs are together only one third the mass of a Shuttle RSRM -- and according to this source (usenet post citing other published data), nine Shuttle launches (two RSRMs per) and six Titan (presumably Titan IV) launches in one year would "add less than 0.25% to the total stratospheric chlorine sources", reducing global yearly average ozone by 0.0065%, which is in the noise relative to naturally-induced variability from volcano and solar flare activity. In other words, an Atlas V launch every 4-6 months will have only a miniscule impact on the ozone layer...even if each of those launches is the five-SRB 551 configuration.

    From the five-solids supplemental EIS, we find that the primary effects on vegetation from the solid rocket motor exhaust (beyond the obvious incineration or impact deaths of anything too close to the pad) will come from deposition of hydrochloric acid on foliage between 30m and 800m from LC41. Al2O3 from the plume is largely insoluble and is not expected to have environmental effects. The effects on fish were not directly addressed in the EIS beyond a mention that launch accidents could release ammonium perchlorate into the local waters, but most of the concern regarding wildlife seemed to surround noise effects, which were deemed minimal.

I spent about an hour looking around on the web without finding any reports of the sort of damage to fish and bird populations that he describes, even on the sites of entities (Florida DEP, EPA, NASA, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee, et al) that one would expect to keep an eye out for such things. On the contrary, there were numerous readily available descriptions of the work KSC has done to preserve and study the wetlands and wildlife habitats along the Merritt Island seashore, in conjunction with a variety of conservation groups and universities. If Bruce has some facts to back up his fretting about a space coast "Silent Spring", I'd love to see it...of course, that would entail Bruce actually linking to factual supporting materials, which appears to be beyond his abilities as a blogger. (How he got through most of a political science program without developing an aversion to unsubstantiated claims of fact in his writing, I'll never understand. Valencia Community College must have had somewhat looser academic expectations than JMC.)

But why let the facts get in the way of opposing the space program altogether on environmental grounds...even after asserting that he supports space exploration when it doesn't use nuclear material?

Many space enthusiasts this week emailed me saying that the Global Network was holding civilization back from this historic journey to find our new home because Earth is a rotting, stinking, dieing planet. Surely, the contamination from the space program has helped make it so. But alas, I am old fashioned. I love this Mother Earth of mine and want to keep it clean and alive. That makes me an anti-technology bum my critics say. One person who wrote in called me “the enemy.”
Yet more whining about hate mail. Boo hoo. Get over it.

What makes him an "anti-technology bum" is not his Gaia-worship but his anti-technology stance, particularly in the case of space technology that might just maybe have even the most tenuous military pedigree or application -- except, apparently, the computer derived from ballistic firing table calculators and ICBM tracking and guidance systems on which he writes his silly blog posts, or the Pentagon-developed fault-tolerant data sharing network on which he publishes them.

While he claims now that he would support "clean" methods of getting to space for exploration purposes, something tells me that even if a space elevator could be built that used advanced carbon filaments made from anthropogenic CO2 extracted from the atmosphere, that ran cabs built from scrapped weapons systems made available by universal disarmament, that was powered by windmills and solar panels, and that only took into space -- if anyone -- those astronauts with a suitably benevolent and progressive character, he'd move the goalposts yet again, finding some other reason to be against it.

Posted by T.L. James on January 20, 2006 09:10 PM


Gagnon is another useful idiot.

Posted by: Jim Rohrich at January 21, 2006 04:16 PM

While I agree his criticisms are silly, due to scale if nothing else, some statements made in your rebuttal are flawed and weaken your argument.

It is not the case that if the vehicle is above the ozone layer that the exhaust will necessarily not affect the ozone layer. Any material deposited in the atmosphere above the ozone layer, unless it can evaporate out into space or be converted to something else, will eventually convect/diffuse down to the altitude where the ozone layer resides.

Similarly, rocket exhaust emitted above the atmosphere does not necessarily stay in space. For example, the mean velocity of the exhaust from a LOX/LH2 stage is around 4 km/s, so if the vehicle is traveling below escape velocity a good fraction of the reaction mass will end up going slowly enough to reencounter the atmosphere. The reacted propellant from the solid upper stage may not have returned to the atmosphere, but most of the gas from the Centaur probably did.

Posted by: Paul Dietz at January 22, 2006 05:25 AM

Fair enough -- I focused on the chlorine compounds, to which ozone damage is typically attributed.

Posted by: T.L. James at January 22, 2006 12:10 PM

"of course, that would entail Bruce actually linking to factual supporting materials"

Hey, he's a thinker not a linker.

Posted by: prince of leaves at January 22, 2006 03:04 PM

"Hey, he's a thinker not a linker."

From Goats
Jon: The doorman is going to buzz her up any minute now.

Diablo: You should run away

Jon: No.

Diablo: Fine. You should sick rabid coelacanths on her.

Jon: Where am I supposed to find coelacanths at this time of day?

Diablo: Process doesn't concern me. I'm a high-level thinker.

Bruce is, you see, a high-level thinker. Fussy details are left for others. Hey, it's hard work being self-righteous and coming up with Big Ideas.

Posted by: Brian at January 22, 2006 09:32 PM

> Fair enough -- I focused on the chlorine compounds, to which ozone damage is typically attributed.

Other compounds are not entirely innocent. The antarctic ozone hole is partially due to the presence of ice crystals in the extremely cold early spring stratosphere, which removes NOx that inhibits the catalytic activity of free chlorine, and also acts as a surface for heterogenous regeneration of Cl atoms.

Also, early concern about the effects of SSTs on the ozone layer was motivated by the catalytic effect of HOx (odd hydrgen species, produced by photolysis of water).

Methane oxidation is thought to put about 90 megatons of water into the stratosphere annually, so near-term rocket launches are not going to be significant for the ozone layer. The effects higher up, in the mesosphere, might occur at lower levels of input; water injection there would increase noctilucent cloud formation.

Posted by: Paul Dietz at January 24, 2006 07:31 AM

I appreciate Mr. James' willingness to allow comments and repond to them; it leads (usually) to a good exchange of information and ideas.

Too bad the lazy/cowardly/intolerant Mr. Gagnon no longer allows the same exchange on his site. Not that he ever actually responded to posts.

Posted by: Aaron_J at January 24, 2006 11:09 PM

I know this comment may be a little late, but I just realized this:

"The Atlas rocket that carried the New Horizons probe into space punched a bigger hole in the ozone layer above the Earth."

Our friend, Mr. Gagnon, does realize that rockets DON'T go straight up, right? Because that's how I'm reading his comments. If rockets go straight up, how do they get into orbit without any velocity? I could just count this off as a minor typo, but that still might be giving him too much credit.

Posted by: RobW at February 11, 2006 05:57 PM

RobW, you're talking about a man who conceives of space as being just like the high seas -- complete with "shipping lanes" that the military can dominate to deny others access to space. Judging from his own published words, he doesn't have even the first inkling of a hint of a clue as to how orbital mechanics work, and I expect that a real flight profile is beyond his understanding as well.

That said, I have a hard time deciding whether on less complicated space technology matters he is obstinately ignorant or deliberately dishonest when he misrepresents their true nature. Case in point: the post last week in which he -- yet again -- describes Prometheus as a "nuclear rocket" program, when in fact Prometheus is (was to be?) an *electric rocket* with an advanced nuclear power system providing the electricity. I've corrected his error a number of times, as have others (including commenters on his own website, if I recall correctly), but he still repeats it again and again. Is he stupid, for not knowing anything about the subject he fluffs himself for dedicating his life and "organizing" career to protesting, and for ignoring corrections when offered? Or is he a liar, deliberately attempting to conflate Prometheus with more "scary" things like NERVA/ROVER or Orion by lumping them all together as "nuclear rockets" in order to frighten into blind action the ignorant luddites he wishes to lead?

I tend more to the latter, but I can't quite convince myself that he isn't both stupid AND a liar.

Posted by: T.L. James at February 11, 2006 11:33 PM