This Isn’t The Year For Space Reform

It’s been quite a while since my last post. I was getting distracted by other interests. But recent events in space news have inspired me to come back and make a few points. Right now Congress is working on NASA authorization legislation. In a nutshell, the GOP controlled House of Representatives wants to keep NASA’s budget down, consistent with post-sequestration level spending, while the Democrat controlled Senate wants to raise it relative to those levels. I’m not going to get into any specific comparisons between the two version, for that I would refer you to websites such as spacepolitics.com and spacepolicyonline.com (links provided below). Instead, I wanted to discuss how both versions support the SLS rocket (Space Launch System, aka Senate Launch System) which is a program I have never been shy of being critical of. This multi-billion dollar per year monster rocket is the single most destructive thing happening at NASA. Not only is the financial support of it causing those desperate to defend it to raid NASA’s other programs, but even IF it ever gets built the money to develop the things it will launch into space doesn’t exist in NASA’s budget, nor is there any reason to believe it ever will exist. The Orion crew capsule, being developed in parallel with SLS, can’t do anything more exciting than orbit the moon without additional hardware. But for anyone out there who agrees with me on this issue (and I know I’m not alone), the reason I’m not going to ask you to write your congressman or sign a meaningless White House petition is because… this is not our year. There was no way NASA was going to be reformed this year. And it’s not because NASA receives so little media attention, public support, or political prioritization, although all those reasons are viable factors… it’s because continuation of the status quo was unavoidable this time around. Even though we who have effectively declared jihad on the SLS KNOW it is inevitably a monstrous embarrassment for the space program… it isn’t any more embarrassing than it was last year, or the year before that. The people in charge of these decisions, namely the Representatives and Senators on the relevant committees and subcommittees, aren’t going to change course until the last possible second (and maybe not even then, unfortunately). One of a few things has to happen in order for SLS’s epitaph to finally be drafted: SLS slips significantly behind schedule (a la Constellation), SLS’s annual budget grows so big and raids NASA’s other account so much that the backlash will be overwhelming, or a cost effective private sector heavy lift rocket capable of supporting deep space exploration activities, such as SpaceX’s proposed Falcon Heavy, becomes available and shames the SLS into remission. I already knew none of these things were going to happen in time for this year’s authorization, so continuation of the status quo was inevitable. Over the next few weeks and possibly months, the NASA authorization bills will move through their respective congressional bodies, then the two versions will be consolidated and reconciled with one another before proceeding to the President’s desk. I find it exceedingly hard to believe that the NASA authorization put on the President’s desk will be so reprehensibly bad that he will invest the political capital to fight it in light of bigger issues to deal with (immigration reform if it’s not already settled, but even if it is, something else will come up). It’s not our year. This is not the time to spend our energy fighting for NASA reform. But it won’t be too long (I’m betting on the first term of the next President) that the time will come for us to end the SLS and reform NASA. We must be ready.

-Space Colonizer

Www.spacepolicyonline.com
www.spacepolitics.com

This Week In Space, Part 2: Bittersweet Friday?

Deliveries and Delays (Friday, 3/1/2013)
At 10:10am ET(7:10am PST) on Friday 3/1/2013, SpaceX will be launching its second cargo delivery to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. This will further demonstrate the progress of the commercialization of launch services to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) being pushed at NASA. The other company competing for these cargo delivery services is Orbital Sciences, which should have their first launch sometime this year. But even more exciting are the plans to have crew transportation services to the ISS. SpaceX is also a competitor to provide those services, along with Sierra Nevada and Boeing. The way these services are brought to maturity is though a pay-for-progress system, where “prize” money is awarded to competitors for achieving agreed upon milestones. The longer it takes for these services to become available, the longer we will be paying the Russians to send our astronauts to the ISS for us. It is important that this program be well funded. If funds are low, one of two things will happen: either the prizes will be smaller and therefore less attractive which will make the companies less motivated to make progress, or we will have to reduce the number of competitors. I personally don’t think reducing competitors is a good idea. Ideally we should want to have two successful companies to sign full blown service contracts with, that way we have an active operating alternative if one has an accident. Already we’re down to only three competitors, which might technically be considered 2.5 based on the amount of money set aside for prizes (Sierra Nevada is the the .5). If we are forced to reduce down to two competitors, or even worse just one, I would consider it devastating to the viability of the program. For those that don’t follow DC politics (good for you!), there are some across the board budget cuts coming up referred to as “sequestration”. At NASA, these cuts are going to dig pretty hard into the Commercial Crew Program (CCP). It doesn’t seem likely that sequestration will be stopped or completely reversed retroactively. The best hope that the CCP has is if NASA receives a budget increase to compensate for the sequestration cuts, a tough sell in this political/budgetary environment, or if funds are shifted around to put it back on track, which will likely upset either planetary science advocates or people who want the James Webb Space Telescope to be completed since those are were the money might come from. As I’ve said in a previous blog, if I had my way the sequestration cuts at NASA would entirely be put on the shoulders of the Space Launch System (SLS). I don’t want it built, and even if it does get build it doesn’t actually matter what timetable it gets done on unlike the CCP which is attempting to end our expensive reliance on the Russians for crew access to space. Of course, I have absolutely no say in the matter and SLS provides the interested parties of Congress a lot of pork for their districts so they will do anything to protect it. Congress has also been more than happy to allow commercial endeavors to be further delayed because they see it as a threat to their pork monopoly. So here were are… a very strange day for commercial crew advocates. One the one hand we have SpaceX’s second CRS launch demonstrating progress… on the other we have reckless NASA budget cuts that will likely hamper future progress. I guess it’s true what they say: if “con” is the opposite of “pro”, than “congress” must be the opposite of “progress”.

-Space Colonizer

This Week In Space, Part 1: Juxtaposition Wednesday!

I’ll Take A Double! (Wednesday, 2/27/2013)
This coming Wednesday there will be two space related events going down. First, in the morning at 10am ET (7am PST) there will be a hearing held by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (the Space Subcommittee to be exact) titled “A Review of The Space Leadership Preservation Act” (details on that later). Later in the day, at 1:00pm ET (10am PST), Dennis Tito, the first tourist to visit the International Space Station, will announce his plans for a mission to Mars to launch in 2018. When I was starting to look forward to the week and realized those two things happened one after another, I couldn’t help but think of how opposite they were in a few key ways. One shows Congress trying to play puppet-master with NASA in what I view as an attempt to make it harder to pull out on long term program plans when they’re starting to fail. The other is a near-term private sector initiative for something only governments have ever done before, and if the mission is meant to be crewed (as the rumor mill seems to believe) than it’s something no government has EVER done! Government vs. Private. Long term thinking vs. short term doing. And yet… underwhelmed doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about either of these things.

Blaming The Wrong Guy
I’ve written about the Space Leadership Preservation Act before, but here’s a quick overview. An 11-member board of directors would be appointed by Congress and the President. The President, Senate majority leader, and the Speaker of the House would each appoint 3 members and the minority leaders from each body Congress would select one each. This board of directors would have two main responsibilities: providing the President with a list of three names for potential NASA administrators, who would then serve a 6-year term (changed from a 10-year term in the previous version of the bill), and to provide the President with a budget recommendation for NASA. The President need not adhere to the budget recommendation from the board of directors but must explain in writing along with his submitted budget to Congress any and all deviations from that recommendation. This is somehow supposed to better “preserve” America’s leadership in space, relative to the status quo. From what I can figure, Congress seems to think that the President and the NASA administrator by proxy are what’s causing problems at NASA. I personally believe it is Congress and their crony capitalist buddies in the Space Industrial Complex that are keeping NASA from doing truly great things. Honestly it is hard to see how this legislation gives anyone significantly more power, but it makes the position of NASA administrator one that no longer serves at the pleasure of the President. It ties the hands of future Presidents when trying to get the team they want to enact the policy they want. Even if a President forces through a budget of their choosing, they could be stuck with an administrator that might not want to “play ball”. It’ll be interesting to hear exactly how the authors of the legislation think this will make NASA more efficient. The hearing will be streamed live: http://science.house.gov/hearing/subcommittee-space-review-space-leadership-preservation-act

Lets Not Get Too Crazy
If my Twitter feed is any indication, space enthusiasts are really buzzing over Dennis Tito’s upcoming Mars announcement. I on the other hand am more inclined to do a #facepalm over the idea. To be fair, we actually have no idea what the announcement exactly will be. But if the consensus of the rumor mill is to be given any significant weight… it would appear that Tito wants to send humans to either pass or orbit Mars, NOT land, and return to Earth for a total trip time of about 500 days made possible without an advanced in-space propulsion system by taking advantage of the 2018 launch date which is special because it allows for an efficient trajectory for both getting to Mars and coming back. Sounds really cool, right? Well in my opinion it also sounds ridiculous. We’re talking about just under 5 years to get all the necessary funding, develop the systems needed for the trip (radiation protection and a centrifuge habitat for simulated gravity being top on the list IMO), and select and train the crew. The trip would last 500 days, an amount of time no astronaut has EVER stayed in space on a single visit… and even the Russian cosmonaut who stayed up for 437.7 days was in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) which is better protected from radiation thanks to Earth’s magnetosphere than open space is. It’s just way too much being attempted way too fast. But let’s say I’m totally wrong and they pull this off. I’m still not really too excited about it. It mixes two things I have previously explained I find annoying with regards to space: tourism and “moments”. First, just to get it out of the way, tourism WILL NOT make us a space faring civilization. Second, doing a one shot mission that takes advantage of the “free return” 2018 launch window doesn’t lay down the space infrastructure needed to facilitate going to Mars afterward. My big fear is that this attempt and failure (that includes even a failure to execute) of this mission will make the space enthusiast community look even more childish to the general public and it will make it harder for serious space ventures to secure capital. Again, there hasn’t been any confirmation that this is intended to be a crewed mission… that’s just rumor. What I HOPE Tito will be announcing tomorrow is something a little more practical, like maybe sending stuff to Mars that would prepare for a later human mission… like putting supplies in orbit, landing a greenhouse (an idea Elon Musk once considered), or maybe even a Martian GPS network. We shall see. The announcement will be streamed live: http://inspirationmars.org/

-Space Colonizer

If I Were King Of NASA…

In Need Of A Royal Decree
If somebody asked you “who is in charge of NASA?”, what answer would you give? Would you say it’s Administrator Charlie Bolden? He’s more of a manager, and I wouldn’t exactly call him “in charge”. Ironically he probably has the least control over what NASA does even though he oversees operations. What about the President, Barack Obama? Well he certainly has the power of suggestion when it comes to what NASA does, the “power of the pulpit” as it’s sometimes called, but what he says doesn’t necessarily go, and he’s got bigger fish to fry so he rarely says anything at all. Congress has far more control than the President in determining what NASA will do, while the President will more than likely go along with them and sign whatever NASA-related legislation they land on his desk. So then is Congress in charge of NASA? Well… Congress is divided into two bodies made up of many individuals, most of whom couldn’t care less what NASA does so long as they aren’t asking for more money. The duty of “caring” about NASA is delegated to those members that either represent districts containing NASA centers or people at least sitting on the relevant committees (which are usually made up mostly of the former). Can any one of them be said to be “in charge” of NASA? No, not really. The legislation that determines what NASA will do is typically a compromise between different interests, and nobody can be said to have anything resembling unilateral control. Like any agency, NASA’s course is swayed by an ever shifting balance of power between the two major parties in our political system… usually it doesn’t seem to be so bad for NASA as it “enjoys” bipartisan support. But unfortunately this changing of committee leaderships, changing of presidents, and changing of administrative appointments creates a major lack of consistency in NASA’s direction and goals. I have been asked in the past what I want to see NASA doing. When I answer, I usually start by saying “If I were King of NASA…” because I am fully aware that no one President, no one congressman and no one administrator could have such control, so it would indeed require something like a King. Right now I believe NASA is in need of a “King” more than ever.

The State Of The Kingdom
When President Obama took office, he had some people look at what was going on at NASA and asked for recommendations for any changes that needed to be made. He took some of those recommendations and crafted a budget request that was to make some pretty big changes. The biggest of these changes was the cancellation of the Constellation program, which was running well above budget and had a schedule slipping so quickly (one year per year) it effectively represented zero progress. The Constellation program was essentially an Apollo reboot except we would launch cargo and crew separately (which itself was a pretty smart idea, in my opinion). The new plan would also accelerate our commercial crew program since the crew launching portion of Constellation was being canceled. In addition, a new focused space technology program would be started to research and develop core technologies to service and benefit many possible missions, both robotic and human, to multiple possible destinations. This new focus on core technology development was part of a strategy commonly referred to as “flexible path”. The idea is that rather then invest intensely into a specific mission architecture for a specific destination, we would instead slowly develop general technologies that would be helpful in taking us to multiple possible locations, like in-space propulsion systems and radiation mitigation just to name a couple. Then at a future time when more budget could be supplied or made available to support a specific mission we would already have a good deal of groundwork laid and would only need to get started on mission/location specific hardware. With regards to how that hardware would get launched to orbit, plans for a traditional government owned and operated heavy-lift rocket system would be delayed for several years until needed, which might have ended the tradition altogether if commercial alternatives had come online able to fill the need. I thought this was a great plan. In fact it was this proposed plan that got me more interested in space and made me start to consider myself a space enthusiast. Prior to the speech Obama made at the Kennedy Space Center on April 15th (link below) where he introduced this plan, my interest in space was a little more “casual” relative to the average geek. But you know who didn’t love the plan? Congress. You see… building, testing and launching big rockets brings a lot of jobs to many of the NASA centers, particularly when this is done by certain government contractors. So when you try to say “no more big rockets built using traditional contracting methods” to Congress… they don’t like it… they don’t like it one bit. So they replaced Constellation with another big rocket project called SLS (Space Launch System, aka Senate Launch System), didn’t accelerate the commercial crew program as much as requested, and gave the new space technology account such a small budget that it’s effectively impotent. SLS will be canceled before it ever flies a human into space, the only question is how soon will congress accept that and what will happen to NASA then?

So Shall It Be Written…: Overall Strategy
So finally getting around to the point of this rant… what would I do if I were crowned “King of NASA” today? I would start by canceling the SLS and enacting a strict “no NASA launch systems” policy. NASA should focus on what is done IN space and have the relevant equipment, supplies and personnel sent to space on commercial rockets. If there is a need for a launch system with a higher payload capacity than offered by currently available options, NASA can encourage the development of such systems in a manner similar to the way they have encouraged the development of commercial crew and cargo transportation services for the ISS. Basically NASA would reward competitors for progress towards the final product which they would then purchase as a service. So what exactly would I have NASA doing in/sending to space? Let’s first go back to an idea I’ve mentioned time and time again on this blog: “planet hopping”. The concept of a “planet hopping” strategy for space was proposed by Jeff Greason (video link below). The idea is that we would go to Luna (our moon) for the purpose of producing propellant from ice that can be mined there, then using that propellant to go to the moons of Mars. Then we would produce/use propellant from the moons of Mars for the purpose of landing on Mars. Then propellant from either Mars or the moons of Mars could be used to spread even further out into the Solar System. This idea is presented by Jeff Greason as a strategy for space settlement. The original settlers would be there as ice miners for propellant production, and others would move in later for other reasons, supported by the transportation infrastructure already laid down. As King of NASA I would have NASA leading the charge on a strategy based heavily on the idea of “planet hopping”. NASA would lead the way out into the solar system, laying down the infrastructure to make it easier for any that wish to follow. And those followers should be encouraged to follow. It should be the plan from the very beginning that all this space transportation infrastructure that NASA will create will not be for NASA alone. And it should be part of the plan that the private sector will eventually take over these functions. At first NASA will be the supplier of these services, which will help reduce their operational costs. As time goes on they will outsource those capabilities to private companies and NASA will become a customer at a price point that should be lower than the cost of operating the systems themselves. NASA should remain on the edge of the ever expanding frontier, and they should both drag and and be pushed by the private sector in their wake. If the private sector takes the lead on any of those steps, great! NASA can then move forward on the infrastructure built by others. NASA should be adaptable, and having a “King” rather than a bureaucracy would make that easier.

So Shall It Be Done!: Near Term Tactics
What would the beginnings of such a strategy look like? How do we transition from what we’re doing now to what I want NASA to be doing? As I said already, SLS will be canceled. Those funds would get diverted mostly to the space technology program and the commercial crew program will be accelerated (within reason). There will be a focus on developing propellant depots, in-space propulsion, and in-situ resource utilization equipment. With commercial companies already taking an increased roll in Low-Earth Orbit, NASA would move on to the moon and asteroids. I know I had a whole blog post titled “Why I’m Not A Moon-Firster” but when it comes to the “planet hopping” strategy, the moon is an obvious first destination, although it is possible to ignore it and get propellant from just asteroids. The whole point of these activities is two fold: (1) to reduce the cost of access to the moon and near Earth asteroids, not only for NASA but for the private sector as well, and (2) to reduce the cost of getting to Mars, not just once but multiple times, possibly continuously. Then, when the technology is ready, NASA will go to Mars using a spacecraft like the Nautilus-X concept (links below) and follow the same formula to begin moving on the the next destination. Now I haven’t spoken yet about robotic exploration or space telescope missions. I’m very much in support of these things and would want them to get their fair share of the budget. In fact, cheaper launch, propellant depots and advancements in in-space propulsion technology are all things that will benefit robotic exploration as well as the human exploration efforts I have detailed here. Would this overall plan for NASA that I’ve spelled out require an increased budget? Yeah, probably. But not by as much as you may think. Not spending $3 billion a year on a rocket to nowhere frees up a lot of cash, and my plan includes a lot of early investments that serve to decrease the costs of future activities. And as time goes on and NASA pushes forward along the frontier, they won’t continue spending money on operating the earlier infrastructure they laid down because they will have handed that responsibility over to the private sector. Certainly there are a lot of unknowns, and the private sector might not “catch up” as quickly as we may want them to, which is exactly why I’m not bothering to spell out any timetables for these goals. Now… where’s my crown?

What Do You MEAN We Live In A Democracy!?
OK… so the idea of NASA being under the unilateral control of a “King” is, of course, completely ridiculous. Even more ridiculous is the thought that a lowly space enthusiast with no expertise in science or engineering who has never managed more than a retail store with 2 other employees might get crowned as “King of NASA” (a boy can dream). So if monarchy isn’t an option, what can the bureaucracy of a democratic republic offer us as an alternative? Enter the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012, a piece of legislation crafted during the last congress (the 112th, we’re on the 113th now) that never made it to the floor of either legislative body for debate. If enacted as written (link below) it would establish an eleven member board of directors who would make determinations for what NASA ought to be doing. The President, House speaker, and Senate majority leader would each appoint three members with the minority leaders from the two legislative bodies each appointing one. These board members would serve for three years shifts, and must sit a shift out if they serve twelve consecutive years. They would provide the President with a list of three potential NASA administrators from which he must choose and then that administrator would serve a ten-year term. The board of directors would also provide the White House with a budget proposal for NASA, which the administration isn’t required to follow, but if they don’t then they must submit along with their own budget proposal a detailed justification for why they deviated from the board’s recommendation. The supposed intention of this proposal is to insulate NASA from the typical partisan shifts in power that plague Washington. But really what this would do is solidify the influence over what NASA does in the hands of “interested” members of Congress. Eight of the eleven members would be appointed by Congress, and the congress leaders will turn to their members who “care” about space for recommendations on who those directors should be. But really, at the end of the day, the board of directors has no power. The president doesn’t need to accept their budget, and congress can still craft whatever bill it wants to present to the President for approval or veto (congress is not required to submit justification for why THEY didn’t follow the board’s recommendations). The strongest power this board appears to have is giving the president a list of three possible administrators who will serve a ten-year term. But as I suggested earlier, administrators have no real power over NASA, they are required by law to manage NASA in accordance with the legislation crafted by congress and approved by the President, and because of the ten-year appointment, that function of the board only occurs once every few iterations. So this doesn’t create significantly more consistency at NASA… it just throws up annoying roadblocks to letting the President propose major changes like… oh, say maybe canceling big giant rockets that are recklessly over budget and frankly unnecessary due to commercial alternatives. Is there some middle ground between this type of bureaucracy and a “King”? Perhaps. But regardless of what that might look like, it’ll probably never happen. I think the best hope for a forward moving, relatively consistent NASA is if commercial entities have started to take over a lot of things that NASA has traditionally done… then NASA will be forced to bottleneck into a definitive purpose for being.

-Space Colonizer

President Obama’s 4/10 Speech at KSC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FI8fyqEEDIU
Jeff Greason’s “Planet Hopping” strategy: http://www.tubechop.com/watch/589997
Nautilus-X Presentation Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kkT4sskmM8
Nautilus-X Presentation Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kgcTq952z0
Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2012: http://goo.gl/nBZph

 

Fly Fast Or Die Slow: The Utility of In-Space Propulsion

Lowered Expectations
So you’re going to Mars? Congratulations! You’re about to embark on an amazing adventure. But first you’ll have to pack your bags. How much do you need to pack? Oh… well… I guess that depends on how long the trip is… doesn’t it? That’s the real question we need to be concerned about when we consider sending people to the red planet. Usually when I see or hear about “plans” for sending people to Mars, the focus tends more to be on other things such as habitats on the surface that the explorers will live in, or building massive rockets so we can send all the stuff that needs to get sent. But when it comes to the length of the trip, it seems like “about six months there, about a year and a half on the surface, about six months back” seems to be a standard. It’s almost as though the community has accepted that a propulsion system that can make the trip in six months is sufficient and we should just move ahead once we have such a system. I reject that notion. A faster propulsion system provides a laundry list of benefits that would simplify a mission to Mars and echo further into the future of space exploration in general.

Bean Counting
Let’s face it… space travel isn’t cheap. It probably never will be considered “cheap”. Even if certain things become greatly cheaper, like access to orbit, the costs of a trip to Mars will still be rather large and the prospect of reducing that cost as much as possible should weigh heavy on the mind of any mission planer. Let’s assume factors such as cost of launch and the utility provided by the use of propellent depots are outside the mission planner’s control. In that case, there is one major factor the mission planner must concern himself with reducing in order to reduce the cost of the mission: the amount of mass being sent to Mars. The amount of mass being sent depends on how many people you’re sending and how long the trip is expected to take. Assuming the number of passengers has already been determined, all that needs to be sent is everything they will need to survive: food, water, air, cleaning supplies to maintain a sanitary environment, and radiation mitigation (which could very well be more water). With a shorter trip we would have to send less of every single one of those things I listed. As long as any additional mass the improved/faster propulsion system might have isn’t more than the supporting supplies… this reduces the amount of mass being sent and therefore reduces the launch costs from Earth.

Need For Speed
The effects of a shorter trip on the need for food, water, air and sanitation supplies should be pretty intuitive so I shouldn’t have to explain them. When it comes to radiation shielding, however, it may take a little explaining. You see, a spacecraft will likely never completely negate all the radiation it would be bombarded with. In fact, even here on the surface of the Earth we aren’t completely protected from space radiation! Luckily for us, about four billion years of life evolving on this planet have made the radiation that reaches the surface an environmental hazard we are well prepared for. So once you accept that the radiation levels on a spacecraft will never be zero, you realize your only goal is that the traveler still be considered healthy when they return home so you only need to protect them enough for that to be the case. The longer the trip, the more radiation exposure the ship will receive and therefore the more radiation mitigation will be required in order to keep the crew healthy. With a shorter trip, less radiation mitigation is required to meet the desired health standards. Depending on the method of radiation mitigation, this could have major effects on the amount of mass that is needed. It’s even possible that the reduction of mitigation requirements could open up the possibility for methods that would have been too weak for longer trips.

The Trade Off
As stated before, the important thing here is the amount of mass that is getting sent. It isn’t worth it to make the trip go faster if the faster propulsion system and the fuel it uses requires an extra amount of mass greater than the mass you’re saving on all the other considerations. So, in a sense, the speed:mass ratio is what we’re trying to maximize. Many of you may be concerned about the cost of researching and developing the propulsion system itself and how that could blow up the cost of the mission on its own. I think it’s reasonable to essentially ignore that cost, or to put it another way, to not include the cost of researching and developing the propulsion system as part of the mission’s cost. I say this because the propulsion system wouldn’t only be useful for that mission… it would have an impact on future missions to other places and should be considered a core technology for space exploration in general rather than a tool for just one mission. Now, I don’t care what exactly the propulsion system is. Chemical rockets with some sort of super fuel, nuclear rockets, warp drive… WHATEVER! I’m not worried about those details… I leave it to the rocket scientists to determine which avenue of study will result in the faster propulsion system relative to its mass.

-Space Colonizer

Space Tourism: It’s A Trap!

Well Big Whoopty-Fucking-Doo For Rich People
Lots of kids grow up dreaming of going to space. This usually comes in the form of rarely realized dreams of becoming an astronaut. Some people grow out of it, but others are bitten by the bug forever. For those that still want to go to space but don’t want to invest there life into science/engineering or go the Air Force pilot route to becoming an astronaut, there’s a back up option available: space tourism. But there’s a catch to that plan too: money… lots of money. And let’s be clear… we’re not talking about saving your pennies on your middle class income your whole life and maybe someday you can afford it kind of money… we’re talking about you’re so damn rich you don’t even need to work anymore for the rest of your life if you can accept a modest lifestyle and not waste all your money on blow kind of money. And if you want to earn that money and then spend it on space tourism… good for you, more power to ya, free country, bla bla bla bla bla. But when it comes to my fascination with space travel, space tourism isn’t high on the list and may not even be on my list at all. If I won hundreds of millions of dollars in the lottery, I probably wouldn’t even use it to go to space. When it comes to my love for space, it isn’t about ME. My space enthusiasm comes from a more general hope that someday, likely not in my lifetime, humanity can proudly consider itself space-faring. Any development that I view as bringing us closer to that reality is what gets me jumping with excitement, and space tourism simply doesn’t do it for me because no frontier ever got blazed by rich people on vacation.

An Early History Of Space Tourism: Government Sponsored
Usually when you hear about space tourism, you’re immediate thought is of private ventures like Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures (more on them later), but I put to you for consideration the notion that government space exploration endeavors can also count as “tourism”. The Space Race of the 1960′s was primarily a proxy for war against the soviets. It was essentially an economic war: a competition to see which nation’s economic infrastructure was better suited to support an audacious and unnecessary engineering project. And guess who won? The capitalist nation using a civilian-socialist (read: crony capitalism) program beat the communist nation using a military program. Isn’t life grand? But let’s put the political motivations for the space race aside and focus on what landing men on the moon really was at the end of the day. Was it about science? If moon rocks were the goal we could have gotten those for a whole lot cheaper with a robotic sample return mission. So if science can’t be said to be the true goal, what else would you call sending people somewhere, having them take pictures, and not having them set up any sort of infrastructure to make things easier for future travelers? What would you call that? I don’t know about you… but I call that TOURISM! The Apollo program was little more than big giant multi-billion dollar government financed tourism for a selected few. Yeah, sure, it weakened the Soviet Union’s economy, it created a whole slew of spin-off technologies that have benefited the economy, and it inspired a generation to study math and science, but that doesn’t change the fact the Apollo program itself was really just a form of tourism. I can imagine the astronauts that went don’t see it that way because they put their lives at risk and did things that would classify as “work”, but I think you get the point.

Enter The Big Bags Of Cash
No longer do you have to be an elite government employee to go to space. If you’ve got a small fortune set aside, you too can go were only few have gone before. Is breaking free of what most consider to be the “edge” of the atmosphere good enough to qualify as “space” in your opinion? Than for just over three times the average American household’s income($200,000), you can book a ticket on one of Virgin Galactic’s as-of-yet non-existent sub-orbital flights! Not good enough for you? You want to REALLY go to space? Like “to orbit” kind of space? The last guy to do that only paid $40 million! What a steal! Just going to space not enough for you still? What about a trip around the moon? Space Adventures, a travel agency specializing in space flights, is trying to sell a ticket for just such an experience at the bargain price of $100 million… going… going… going… any takers? Oh, but just going around the moon? That’s for hosers! Why not land on the sucker? The new group known as the Golden Spike Company plans to land individuals on the moon for $750 million dollars each (two at a time for $1.5 billion)! If that doesn’t make you want to start an big company, exploit your workers while giving yourself outlandish pay raises, then raid their pensions and sell the company to Germans… I don’t know what will.

Don’t Golden Spike The Football Just Yet
Let me focus on the Golden Spike Company for a bit, the announcement of which is the recent event that inspired me to write this blog post. Their plan is that by the year 2020 they will be able to send two people on an “expedition” (their word) to the moon’s surface for $1.5 billion, which is $750 million per person (MATH!). Now even though I brought them up in the last section in the context of tourism for the wealthy, they’re smart enough to know there isn’t a sustainable private market at that price point. That’s why the main thing they imply that they will do is give nations the chance to join the “we’ve sent people to the moon” club, which currently only includes the USA. But as I have stated before, this is still just tourism even when funded by a government. Even then, how many nations are willing to visit the moon how many times? I don’t even see THAT as a sustainable business at that price point. Now of course, we would hope and expect that the price will come down over the years… that the high price tag at the beginning is set mostly to help recoup investment capital spent on development as soon as possible and once that has been sufficiently dealt with then the price will come down to open up the market to more potential customers. So… why am I supposed to care again? As I’ve been saying, space tourism doesn’t help bring us closer to being a space-faring civilization, it just makes us a space-touring civilization and I don’t consider that the same thing by a long shot.

It’s Deja Vu All Over Again
In my first blog post I spoke of a concept I called “Moments vs. Momentum”. In a nutshell, I classify “moments” as space exploration events that are fleeting. For example, we landed on the moon a few times and then we stopped landing on the moon. Those “moments” came and went. “Momentum”, on the other hand, I classify as infrastructure or technology research that improves our ability to continue activities in the future, usually by either making those activities cheaper or increasing the utility of those activities. My favorite examples of “momentum” are cheaper access to orbit and propellant depots, which would allow us to achieve more complicated exploration architectures without having to develop increasingly large rockets. Golden Spike is really just a private sector rendition of Apollo 11. In other words, all that Golden Spike is offering is “moments”. I’m not going to all of a sudden start getting excited about “moments” just because they’re being orchestrated by the private sector. I still crave “momentum”. Golden Spike doesn’t even try to distinguish itself from Apollo. Look at the footage in their internet promo (link below). It looks like they just slapped their company logo on spacesuits in Apollo photos. We’re going to need steady reliable human transport to the surface of the moon EVENTUALLY if we ever wish to call ourselves space-faring, but so many other things need to happen first in order for that to be the case. Without those other things happening than an endeavor like Golden Spike will go the way of Apollo… it will lose its revenue stream. I expect those other things to happen, but THOSE will be the things that excite me… not Golden Spike.

The Other Guys
Now throughout this article I’ve been dishing out a good deal of criticism to both government and private sector space tourism programs. But don’t misunderstand, I still believe in having a robust government funded space program and am also supremely excited by increased commercial participation in space activities and research. It’s all comes down to HOW they do it. As I mentioned before, I prefer “momentum” over “moments”. NASA’s Space Technology program (which Congress still hasn’t adequately funded) is a great way to build “momentum” and improve our capabilities for future missions. On the private sector side we have companies like Planetary Resources which has a long term goal to mine asteroids for platinum group metals and water which can be used in space as radiation shielding, to make propellant, or as… water. Now Planetary Resources’ game plan is very stretched out and they’re not even bothering to suggest by what date they plan to mine their first asteroid, but they’re near term plans are to launch an array of observation satellites to begin cataloging near-Earth asteroids for potential prospecting. They’re plans during this phase even include profit as they’ll be leasing usage of their observation satellites to other organizations or individuals who may wish to use those capabilities for their own purposes. This qualifies as “momentum” because it is a step moving towards future activities and they aren’t going to just mine one asteroid and close up shop, they will keep doing it as long as there is demand for the resources that they acquire.

#Trending
Space tourism itself doesn’t excite me. I view it as a distraction to what should be more serious space activities that serve to expand our civilization into the solar system. This is often referred to as space exploitation or bringing space into our economic sphere of influence. Tourism to me seems more like taking our economic sphere of influence TO space. I know that sounds like the same thing (semantics is a fickle mistress) but allow me to explain. Space exploitation seeks to make a profit off of the resources that exist in space, either bringing them back here to Earth or using them in space. But space tourism instead makes a profit by using Earth’s resources to send people to space for a visit. I hope that made it clearer. It seems ridiculous to me that so many early private space ventures are advertising a tourism business model. How can it be that sending humans to space for pleasure attracts more investment capital than utilizing resources in space for profit? But hey… if they can make money doing it, I salute them. And there is one silver lining, as I see it, to the lowering prices of access to space. Sure, these tickets for tourism are far beyond the affordability of average people, but there seems to be a downward trend. It shows that space travel is getting cheaper. Groups like Golden Spike Company show that what was once only achievable by the two most powerful nations in the world (although I guess it was really only achievable by THE most powerful) can soon be accomplished by a private company with sufficient financial backing. This trend at least gives me hope that all the other activities I want to see happening, stuff that will build “momentum” and eventually transform us into a truly space-faring civilization, are becoming more and more practicable. It won’t take long for some billionaire investor to say to themselves “hey, if my wealthy friends can throw away their money just to have some fun in space, I should be able to invest my money to do something profitable in space.” The tipping point is approaching. A few wealthy individuals are ahead of the curve, but before too long we’ll see those who never gave space a second thought all of a sudden see the magnificent investment potential in space exploitation.

-Space Colonizer

Golden Spike Company internet promo: http://youtu.be/6hoSSmW27xs

No Icy Moons For You!

Urge To Kill… Rising
Mars… it’s a wonderful place, and I would love the opportunity to go there someday. But recent developments in NASA’s future robotic exploration plans have made me a little bitter. Earlier this week NASA made official their plan to build a $1.5 Billion rover for Mars, essentially a twin for Curiosity. Now that’s all well and good… if NASA has an inexhaustible budget. But in reality NASA’s budget is limited and priorities have to be made. NASA and the powers that be have decided to prioritize Mars exploration above other considerations. The alternatives being overlooked that have me particularly upset are ones involving the exploration of our solar system’s icy moons such as Europa, Enceladus and Titan.

There’s Never Enough TiME
I’ll get back around to Curiosity’s twin later, but for now I’d like to talk about a decision made earlier in the year. Have you ever heard of TiME (Titan Mare Explorer)? TiME is a robotic probe that would be sent to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to float on one of its liquid methane lakes. The first ever of it’s kind, this would be the first time we would ever send a probe to directly study/interact with a body of liquid beyond our planet. The proposal for TiME was part of NASA’s Discovery program, which does low cost robotic exploration missions. During this last selection there were three missions up for consideration: TiME, a comet probe(CHopper), and a Mars lander to study seismic activity(InSight). Of the three missions, InSight was the least fascinating and the least inspiring, and yet it was the one selected. The number one reason given for why InSight was selected over the other two was cost. The Discovery program is explicitly structured for low cost. The missions are given a strict budget cap (not including launch cost) and selections are weighted by their likelihood to stay within that budget. This gives Mars a structural advantage because it’s cheaper to reach and land on because it’s closer and we have experience with landing robotss on its surface. Of all the Discovery missions that have been done/approved so far, InSight is the only one that lands on the surface of its target of study. MESSENGER, Dawn and GRAIL are all orbiters and Kepler is a space telescope. You don’t have to make too many assumptions to believe that the only landing probes that will ever result from the Discovery program will land on Mars. So a mission like TiME can’t make it in a program like Discovery so it will have to compete with larger, arguably more ambitious, competition in the New Frontiers category which includes proposals such as a lander for the planet Venus. I just don’t think that scenario is fair.

Discovery Is A Dish Best Served BOLD
I think the problem isn’t that TiME is too big for Discovery, it’s that Discovery’s budget cap structure is too small for TiME. Instead of a strict limit for all proposals ($425 million) I would like to see a sliding scale based on a number of factors like ambition, doing new things, and laying the ground work to prepare for/justify further more expensive missions. There would still have to be limits of course, the whole point of the program is to keep costs low, but this would create a little wiggle room to open the way for things like TiME and keeping ideas like InSight from unfairly crowding out better idea just because it’s cheaper. What then would happen to ideas like InSight? Well… if it were up to me than NASA would start a whole new smaller category of low cost exploration missions that they would fund on a prize based system. Instead of spending $425 million on InSight, put up $100m or $200m as a prize for a privately funded team to achieve some of those goals, similar to the Google Lunar X-Prize but on a grander scale. Maybe to hedge their bets, NASA could team up with an organization like the X-Prize Foundation and NASA would fund half a prize so long as there is a private group willing to match their contribution. Maybe it would take longer for the scientific community to benefit from the scientific returns, but it would encourage innovation and allow NASA to focus it’s time on bigger and bolder things.

Mars(ha), Mars(ha), Mars(ha)!
As I mentioned earlier, NASA has decided to send another rover to Mars that would essentially be a twin of the Curiosity rover. The price tag is expected/hoped to be about $1.5 billion. Many have pointed out that that amount is extremely close to the amount we were expected to contribute for our participation in the ExoMars program, a collaboration with Europe and Russia’s space agencies that we pulled out of, but that contribution would have to be completed sooner than the 2020 date suggested for Curiosity’s twin. ExoMars was supposed to involve preparation for an eventual soil sample return, and NASA also wants to do that. Even though NASA has shown strong interest in an eventual sample return, there is no guarantee that the 2020 rover will be involved in the endeavor. It’s possible the 2020 rover will cache samples to be picked up and launched later by other devices, but that hasn’t yet been determined. But I was thinking… do we even want that rover to have that capability? What impact would there be on having a sample sit inside a “box” for an extended period of time? Obviously the samples have to be contained for transport anyway, but wouldn’t we want the “freshest” samples possible? Wouldn’t it be better to not have samples collected until we’re very close to having them picked up? So then what if we don’t give the rover caching capabilities… what’s the point of it then? Does Curiosity require redundancy given that we already landed it safely and everything appears to be working fine? Am I giving you a rhetorical question overload? There just doesn’t seem to be any good justification for this rover, in my opinion. NASA’s obsession with Mars has broken into “unhealthy” territory. On Twitter I joked that Mars has officially become the Marsha Brady of the solar system (the obvious related joke that is the title of this section was provided by @ElevenPointTwo). We have to keep in mind that efficient launch windows for Mars pop up about every 2.5 years, for Saturn it’s about every 50. We have plenty of opportunities to send stuff to Mars, but we need to take advantage of the upcoming Saturn window before it passes us by.

There Could Be Life On Them There Moons
One of the big motivations for exploring Mars is that we have a lot of evidence that in was once a lot like Earth in so far as it once has a thicker atmosphere and bodies of water on it’s surface. We think this means it was once capable of supporting life and it is currently one of the “holy grails” of science to discover evidence of life beyond our planet. But there are places in our solar system beyond earth where there might be liquid water, and therefore possibly life, right now and not in some distant past. For example Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, has liquid water under it’s icy surface caused by gravitational tidal forces keeping the moon’s core heated. If the search for life is our motivation, than Europa would be a great candidate for robotic exploration. We should send a probe that would land on the icy surface, drill down through the ice and then become a mini-submarine to swim through the liquid water. This is of course an incredibly ambitious idea and is far beyond either the Discovery or New Frontiers class of missions and would have to be a Flagship mission. I’m not sure when the next efficient launch window for Jupiter is (we just launched Juno last year) but someday launch windows will be made almost irrelevant when we have effective in-space propulsion systems. My point is that we’ve been sending a lot of probes to Mars, adding up to a lot of money, and we haven’t found any clear evidence of life, past or current. We need to stop this swooning over Mars and start thinking about other places. If we want a sample return from Mars, have some astronauts bring them back in their pockets… let the robots got places even farther out of man’s reach.

-Space Colonizer

How Sequestration Could Be The Best Thing Ever… For NASA!?

Political Jargon
Those of you who bury their heads in the sand with regards to politics might not have ever heard the word “sequestration”. Perhaps you have heard of the “fiscal cliff” we’re supposedly “going over” if congress doesn’t get its act together before the new year? If you’ve heard of that, “sequestration” is the part of the “fiscal cliff” involving unspecified spending cuts affecting basically every government agency/program. Where did these recklessly scheduled cuts come from? Well… I’d rather not go into it. Long story short: this congress doesn’t like doing things. Now, even if we do go over this so-called “cliff”, much of it can be reversed retroactively so that there wouldn’t have been any apparent problem at all. But if the spending cuts part of this event go though and stay put… what does that mean for NASA?

A Little Off The Top
NASA would receive an 8.2% budget cut, about $1.46 Billion. Here’s how those cuts would look if applied equally across NASA’s accounts, which is how the White House has implied it would direct those cuts:

Account Current Budget Sequester Amount
Space Operations $4,222.00 $346.00
Science $5,085.00 $417.00
Exploration $3,767.00 $309.00
Cross Agency Support $2,994.00 $246.00
Aeronautics $569.00 $47.00
Space Technology $575.00 $47.00
Education $136.00 $11.00
Construction $385.00 $32.00
Inspector General $38.00 $3.00
TOTAL $17,771.00 $1,458.00

values given in millions(Table by: SpacePolitics.com, Primary Source: http://goo.gl/U6elT)

Now, even though this is the way that the White House has suggested they would implement the cuts if it comes to it, the law only requires that the sequestration cuts be applied to each agency/program equally but how those cuts are applied to each account within an agency is up to the executive branch (aka the President) and the final decisions may be parpplied to each account within an agency is up to the executive branch (aka the President) and the final decisions may be partially delegated to the appointed administrators of those agencies. I believe the reason the administration suggested the sequestration would turn out like this was for a couple of reasons: a) less decisions had to be made b) to increase the amount of congressional representatives and their constituents would we be scampering to get back their pork spending so as to force congress to work to avoid the sequestration. But if sequestration becomes reality is this how they would really come down, or could they be done differently?

The Elephant In The Room
Spreading the sequestration cuts across NASA’s accounts equally would be an awful idea in my opinion. I cringe at the thought of what in the Science budget will be cut to preserve the James Webb Space Telescope. The Space Technology budget is already smaller than I think it ought to be, cutting even more makes it even more impotent. And then there’s Exploration. Under the umbrella of Exploration lives both SLS and the Commercial Crew Program. These two programs are a microcosm of the struggle between two fundamentally different paths that the space program’s future can go down. On the one side you have the traditional style where NASA has rockets manufactured by contractors and then NASA owns and operates those rockets. Such a program is funded by what is referred to as a “Cost+ Contract” where NASA guarantees to cover all of the contractors costs, PLUS a guaranteed amount of profit so that the contractor is never at risk of a financial loss. On the other side you have a system where commercial companies retain ownership of those rockets so that they may sell the service to customers other than NASA. This program is funded through a milestone based “prize” system. A series of development milestones are negotiated and agreed upon and then the commercial companies don’t receive any money until they achieve the corresponding milestones. If the company fails to reach the milestone, they don’t get paid, so if a company fails to make progress, NASA doesn’t lose any money except for the fact that if the final product is delayed too much than we have to continue paying the Russians for transport to ISS, which costs more. The traditional method has proven itself to be a total failure in advancing the space frontier, exemplified by the Constellation program canceled by the Obama administration. The commercial program has been a huge success, and most importantly it has been very cost effective. Members of congress have been aggressively defending the status quo method of cost plus contracts and unfairly attacking commercial crew because it threatens that status quo. Luckily commercial crew has allies in the White House, where final decisions on sequestration cuts will be made. So what does that mean for SLS?

If I Were King Of NASA
The SLS/Orion program costs about $3 billion/year. Orion is nearing completion… so let’s leave that be for now. SLS alone costs about $2 billion/year (including infrastructure construction to accommodate it). Sequestration is $1.5 billion. Kill SLS and you have half a Billion left to beef up other programs. Then in later budgets, you increase spending to reverse the effects of sequestration and fund a new exploration program that will rely on commercial launchers and instead spend the bulk of it’s money on developing in-space systems/vehicles, like the Nautilus-X (if you don’t know, google/wiki it). It probably won’t go down like this… but a boy can dream, can’t he?

-Space Colonizer

Can Reusable Rockets Be A Space Elevator’s Best Friend?

(note: Throughout this article when ever I refer to a Space Elevator I am referring to an “Earth to Space” elevator, NOT lunar elevators and the like)

The Chicken And The Egg
Space elevators are one of the more fascinating futuristic space technology ideas, in my opinion. Imagine a super strong, super durable, yet super light cord or ribbon that goes from a structure on the surface (possibly a platform floating on the ocean) to space. Rather than send giant rockets to fight against gravity in flight using combustible fuel, on a space elevator you send payloads slowly crawling up the ribbon using electrical power provided by either an on board reactor, which would use up some of your payload potential, or a ground based power system that sends the energy up to the ‘crawler’ by laser. This would dramatically reduce the cost of access to orbit compared to modern rocket standards. Unfortunately, a space elevator is currently pure fantasy. The materials required to build one simply don’t exist, and there are other problems as well. But many insist that without the low costs offered by such a method we will never become a space-faring civilization. On the flip side, I would argue that the investment capital to develop the technologies to make a space elevator happen won’t materialize until there is sufficient demand to justify it, which might not even happen until we’re considered space-faring in the first place. Rockets themselves could potentially become cheap enough to greatly increase our space activities and nurture that demand, but that would likely require them to become fully and rapidly reusable, not expendable as they are today. But will space elevators be made irrelevant if rockets become reusable and costs become sufficiently low, or is there enough room for both?

Step One Is Admitting You Have A Problem
There are several obstacles to developing a functioning space elevator system. The biggest one is, of course, developing a material strong enough, light enough, and flexible enough to make a ribbon with the tensile strength needed to survive being swung around by the Earth’s daily rotation. There are great hopes and expectations placed on carbon nanotubes, but even the small ones we can make now lack an industrial scale production process let alone trying to make a ribbon 100,000km long! But let’s say that almighty science and engineering has solved that problem, you also have to make climbers that can travel up the ribbon and be reliable enough to not malfunction and start falling down the ribbon. That’s a long distance to travel without pit stops. And you have to get energy up there too to power the climber! Again, these are all engineering issues that are solvable and don’t break any laws of physics, so they could be solved eventually. There’s also the issue of security. We don’t live in a world of peace. Even if all the nation states of the world united in peaceful cooperation there will always be elements of our species that will commit grand acts of violence and destruction and there’s just no point in assuming otherwise. If we relied on space elevators to access space than we would have to protect them. The cost of this is hard to determine, but I think it will have a significant impact on the economics of a space elevator. But let’s say you’ve overcome all these issues. Let’s say you’ve even navigated all the political issues that may arise from the preferred locations for elevators and who controls them. Is the cost of solving those problems, and subsequently building the system, justifiable when compared to alternatives that, although less efficient, are along a path of less resistance?

The Great Space Elevator Straw Man Argument
The biggest reason for advocating the space elevator concept is the fact that it provides low cost access to space. We often hear that it could be as low as 1% current costs, maybe even lower! But, for me at least, this ‘talking point’ loses water when you realize what the “current cost” is referring to. For whatever reason, the Space Shuttle has become the standard candle by which to compare the costs of other launch system. I suppose it makes sense since it was used as a workhorse for about 30 years, but it was a horribly expensive system and I consider it one of the greatest tragedies in space history that we stuck with it for so long rather than taking what we learned and developing a more cost effective system. If you amortize cost of development, the Space Shuttle ended up costing $10,400 per kg. This means that whenever you hear that a space elevator could send stuff up for 1% the current costs, they’re essentially saying $104 per kg. Well… that sounds nice… but, like I suggested before, the Space Shuttle is an unfair representative of the potential costs of rocket based systems. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, for example, is about $5,400 per kg, making the $104 per kg pricetag closer to 2%, which is still attractive. Then there’s SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy which they hope to test in the next couple of years. That’s being advertised as having a $2200 per kg pricetag, making $104 per kg about 4.7%. Now you may be thinking those are still great cost savings, but you’d be forgetting one thing… all those rockets are expendable. If rockets could be fully reusable than the marginal cost per launch would be greatly reduced down to something approaching very close to the space elevator’s costs but without all the complications that come with maintaining and protecting it. It’s not that a space elevator wouldn’t still be useful, but the more achievable alternatives would decrease the relative utility of investing in the elevator’s invention/construction.

The Enemy Of My Enemy
So let’s assume fully reusable rockets get invented before a space elevator. A safe assumption in my opinion. Does that mean the benefits of a space elevator would become irrelevant? I believe not. In fact, I think the amount of activity that the reusable rockets would encourage would help to further justify investment into space elevators and even other alternatives, such as railguns and other projectile methods of “launch”. Once there is a great deal of demand for getting mass to orbit, competition for that business will surely spur major innovations in the area of “launch”, and I believe it is ridiculous to assume all those innovations will be limited to the field of rocketry. I believe even with all the cost considerations I mentioned for space elevators earlier, it will still have a competitive edge in terms of cost over even fully and rapidly reusable rockets. To me it seems inevitable that some big money investors looking to break into the lucrative space economy will consider investing into a space elevator. So then once a space elevator has been developed, constructed, and proven to work at a lower cost than reusable rockets, what does that mean for the rockets? Will they become irrelevant in the shadow of a cheaper alternative? I think not. I believe every launch method I’ve mentioned has its uses, its ‘niche’ if you will. For the space elevator, it’s bulk cargo. I see the space elevator as the workhorse of the “launch” options. For projectile launchers, it’s small payloads that can withstand rapid accelerations such as propellant, water, and simple parts like nuts & bolts. For rockets, I think the primary market is people. Going up a space elevator takes a long time, maybe even weeks by some estimates! Any crawler carrying people up the elevator would need to bring along all the food, water, and air that its passengers would need for the trip. In addition, you can’t just pack those passengers in like on an airplane, there would need to be beds and enough space to keep people from going crazy on each other. These considerations severely cuts down on the number of people that can be sent up at any given time. But rockets get you to orbit in a matter of minutes or to a space station in a matter of hours if the time of launch was optimal. I think that most space-going customers would pay the premium price to get to their destination faster on a rocket rather than take the cheap seats on an elevator. And that’s fine. I would even go so far as to call that perfect. I like efficiency, and I love seeing an effective division of labor. So maybe rather than space elevator advocates dishing out hate on rockets (I’m looking at you Dr. Bradley Edwards) why don’t they all just get along. Space Elevators are going to need rockets, not only to get themselves launched in the first place, but to create the industry that will facilitate their creation. And rockets shouldn’t be fearful of space elevators because reducing the costs of bulk cargo will increase activity overall and facilitate further activity. And rockets will still do some types of cargo, like perishable food stuffs and other time sensitive equipment and materials. As the saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and obviously that enemy is gravity.

-Space Colonizer

More On “Super Earths”

My last rant on “Super-Earths” got a number of comments. One of them, from Murgatroyd, pointed out the importance of understanding that even larger planets can have low surface gravities, using Uranus (a low density gas giant) as a reference. In addition, this article about “Super-Earths” that also deals with gravity was printed the same night as mine: http://goo.gl/Ipb7a . In the article, Dr. Micheal Chorost shows how the surface gravities on various known “Super-Earths” aren’t proportionally greater relative to their mass because, obviously, the larger radius of the planets gets you farther away from the center of that mass’s gravity. Here’s his table showing the Mass, Radius and Surface Gravities for those “Super Earths”, plus a fictional one with a surface gravity equal to Earth’s:

Mass radius Surface Gravity
earth 1 1 1
Gliese 581g: 2.6 1.4 1.33
Gliese 581d: 6.9 2.2 1.43
Gliese 667Cc: 4.9 1.9 1.36
Kepler 22b: 6.4 2.1 1.45
HD40307g: 8.2 2.4 1.42
HD85512b: 4 1.7 1.38
Gliese 163c: 8 2.4 1.39
Fictional 8 2.83 1

But I pointed out to Dr. Micheal Chorost that ever on his fictional world, escape velocity would be higher (he did talk about landing/launching in the article). He said it was an interesting point and would ask some of his rocket science friends about it. Well I took the liberty of figuring it out myself and here is a table showing the escape velocities for all those planets, as well as the rocky planets in our solar system:

Mass radius Surface Gravity Escape Velocity
Mercury 0.055 0.383 0.380 0.381
Venus 0.815 0.950 0.900 0.928
earth 1.000 1.000 1.000 1.000
Luna 0.012 0.273 0.165 0.213
Mars 0.107 0.533 0.380 0.450
Gliese 581g: 2.600 1.400 1.330 1.360
Gliese 581d: 6.900 2.200 1.430 1.770
Gliese 667Cc: 4.900 1.900 1.360 1.610
Kepler 22b: 6.400 2.100 1.450 1.740
HD40307g: 8.200 2.400 1.420 1.850
HD85512b: 4.000 1.700 1.380 1.530
Gliese 163c: 8.000 2.400 1.390 1.830
Fictional 8.000 2.830 1.000 1.680

As you can see, on the fictional “Super-Earth” with a surface gravity equal to Earth’s, the escape velocity is still x1.68 that of Earth. HD40307g is the recent “Super-Earth” discovery that prompted these rants, and it’s surface gravity is x1.42 Earth’s, with an escape velocity x1.85 Earth’s. So clearly the surface gravities of a planet is not the attribute you want to look at when determining the difficulty of launching from/landing on that planet. I wish it was as simply as saying that the density of the planet is the best indicator… but it just doesn’t appear to work that way (I checked).

-Space Colonizer