Delusions of a Mars Colonist

Abracadabra! We turn Mars into a second Earth (National Geographic Society)

Abracadabra! We turn Mars into a second Earth (National Geographic Society)

A perennial talking point promoted by the space media is the belief that to save humanity, we must make a beeline to Mars. Supposedly, Mars is so “Earth-like” that it is the natural second home for humanity in space, a place to assure species survival in the event of some planetary catastrophe (such as a large meteorite impact). Because Mars could be “terraformed” to become even more Earth-like, we must focus our principal space efforts on undertaking human missions to Mars – ASAP (for the last 45 years).

For any sustainable human presence off-Earth to be successful, one must develop the means to arrive, survive and thrive. Most commentary on human Mars missions has focused entirely on the requirement to arrive because many of the technical problems associated with this must-accomplish first task remain unresolved. Presently, we don’t know how to build fault-tolerant, in-space serviceable systems necessary to support human life over the course of a multiple-year-long Mars mission. Protecting the crew from exposure to constant high-energy cosmic rays and sporadic solar particle events requires some means of shielding the vehicle – a daunting prospect in terms of mass and power. The means of a safe entry, descent and landing of a spacecraft (having mass of tens-of-tones) onto the martian surface must be developed, as these are currently completely unknown “details.” And if it the trip is to be more than one-way, then provisioning, refueling and launching for the return home must be sorted out too. These issues must be resolved before a crewed mission to Mars can take place.

For the moment, I’ll ignore these non-trivial “arrival” issues and focus instead on the two remaining objectives – “survive and thrive.” Only rudimentary attention has been given to how humans will survive on the martian surface. Certainly, additional problems will come up that we cannot know now, but the ones we do understand are formidable enough. In contrast to the press it receives, the martian surface is a cold, alien, hostile environment – much more dangerous than free space or even, in some respects, the lunar surface. Although Mars does have an atmosphere, it is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide and has less than one-hundredth the surface pressure of Earth. While this thin atmosphere protects the surface from the smallest micrometeoroids, it does not shield it from the highest energy cosmic rays or solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In addition, because Mars has no global magnetic field (and we cannot create one), galactic cosmic rays will always shower the surface, making underground dwellings a must – not in transparent domed cities on the surface, as portrayed in science fiction novels and films.

Like the Moon, the surface of Mars is covered with a fine dust, but unlike lunar soil, martian dust is chemically reactive – a toxic mix of perchlorates and peroxides that, combined with the high flux of solar UV and galactic cosmic rays to which the surface is exposed, makes for an almost completely sterilizing environment. The Viking landers flown 50 years ago could not find any organic matter (i.e., compounds made of carbon, nitrogen and hydrogen) in martian soil in any concentration at the parts-per-billion sensitivity level. The scenes in the recent film The Martian (held up by NASA as a model of scientific veracity and prediction) in which the astronaut fertilizes the martian soil and grows potatoes, is complete fantasy – we simply do not know how to alter the soil chemistry of Mars, fertilize it with organic matter, and then grow radiation-tolerant plants quickly enough to support a human community, let alone a single astronaut.

Water is thought to be present on Mars, so clearly supplying water would be no problem. Or would it? The upper surface of Mars is covered by rock and dust, but ground ice is present in many locations at depths between a few meters to several tens of meters. Subsurface ice could be reached by drilling or by setting off an explosive charge. Martian water is likely to be saline, which will necessitate its distillation for human consumption or agriculture, requiring more electrical power and adding complexity to surface systems.

Human communities need energy to do almost anything and energy production on Mars is a significant issue. Mars is farther from the Sun than the Earth is, so solar panels will generate only about half the energy (so at least twice the collection area will be needed). Because there are frequent dust storms on Mars, solar panels will require regular cleaning to assure peak power production; such a task is challenging for very large areas (thousands of square meters) of solar arrays. The gravity of Mars (0.38 of Earth) is more than twice that of the Moon (0.16 of Earth) and landing large masses of supplies and infrastructure on Mars is difficult. Perhaps solar arrays can be manufactured from local materials on the martian surface but as we do not know the surface chemical composition of different localities in detail, we do not know how difficult this might be. The obvious solution to these difficulties in energy production is to deploy a nuclear fission reactor; the problem is that no reactor of suitable size for use in space exists.

So aside from the inconvenient facts that we don’t know how to safely make the voyage, how to land on the planet, what the detailed chemistry of the soil is, or if we can access potable water, whether we can then grow food locally, or how to build habitats to shield us from the numbing cold and hostile surface environment, don’t know what protection is needed due to the toxic soil chemistry, or how to generate enough electrical power to build and operate an outpost or settlement – in spite of these annoying details that make this idea prohibitive, the creation of a Mars colony within a decade is marketed to the public as if the plans had already been drawn up.

But let us say for the sake of argument that we have addressed the first two tasks adequately – we have arrived and survived. How do we “thrive” on Mars? Of all the notions promulgated in the media about future Mars colonization, this last element is the one that is always ignored. With flashy artwork depicting futuristic cities, sleek flying cars, and lush green fields resplendent under transparent crystal domes (in startling contrast to the red-hued surrounding desert of the martian surface) it is simply assumed that a human colony on Mars will evolve into some kind of off-Earth utopia.

But how will these future Mars inhabitants make a living? And by that, I mean what product or service will they offer that anybody on Earth will want? If you think that the answer is autarky (complete economic isolation and self-sufficiency), then you are imagining an economy (and likely, a political state) in which North Korea is a free market, pluralistic paradise by comparison. People who migrate to Mars need more than food and shelter – they will need imports from Earth, material and intellectual products designed to enrich and refine life on the frontier. What will they have of value to trade or to sell for these imports?

We do not know if Mars contains anything that would have economic value on Earth. Mars has had a complex geological evolution, so we might expect the formation of ore deposits, possibly of substantial value. But even if this is true, we have no idea where these deposits occur or if they are accessible for mining and refining. Martian products must be of sufficient worth so as to merit their transportation back to terrestrial markets, which would require their launch out of the substantial Mars gravity well and back into the even greater gravity well of the Earth. Much is made of the possible economic value of “information,” but it is not clear that Mars is particularly rich in factual data marketable to those back on Earth, although a martian pioneer might have desperate need of it – which would make them their own “customers” and exacerbate the economic disparity of the colony to an even greater degree.

Colonies are not founded in some far-off land because they “look cool” or because some plutocrat wants to retire there. They are established primarily for two reasons: power projection and/or wealth creation. Small, barren islands or isolated localities might not offer much in the way of wealth, but their strategic value might be immense (e.g., Gibraltar). On the other hand, the New World was often more trouble than profit to most European states in the immediate aftermath of Columbus’ discovery. But once the gold and silver started flowing, colonists soon followed and pursued profitable and sustainable endeavors once they arrived and survived. The idea of a sustainable space settlement requires the creation of some kind of market – either economic or strategic – for whatever they find or produce there. Such might be achievable in free space (e.g., the generation and sale of space solar power) or on the Moon (e.g., the production of water to fuel a permanent space transportation system). Mars is too far away and relatively inaccessible to serve strategic ends, and an economic driver has not been identified – other than reality TV to observe any surviving arrivals as if they were zoo creatures (“Mars Survivor!” Who gets voted out of the airlock this week?).

Of all the “thrive” concepts yet advanced for space settlements, the idea of “terraforming” Mars (i.e., making the martian surface conditions like those of the Earth) is the most unbelievable. In essence, this is a proposal to manufacture an Earth-like environment on a planetary scale – a technical task we can barely manage within the confines of a single, small spacecraft. Yet some blithely speak of altering a planet’s atmosphere, hydrosphere and crust to make a “second Eden” where humans can roam free and settle widely. The unknowns involved in such an undertaking are not simply monumental, they are literally inestimable – to borrow a phrase, “we don’t know what we don’t know.” We are still uncertain about all of the factors that control and influence Earth’s climate and habitability, let alone know enough to manipulate the evolution of an alien planet toward some desired end. Spurring imaginations, this fantasy future is always depicted in beautiful artwork, where colonists inhabiting the ancient, parched red planet, see a world gradually being overtaken by shades of blue and green. We just need to go! This is science fiction indeed.

This new delusion – Mars as the New World – illustrates better than almost anything else the anemic state of the American space program. This debilitating condition allows for patent nonsense to be seriously peddled to a credulous, compliant and negligent media who will eagerly print virtually any headline or story.   The space community needs to rethink how they communicate the truth about our space future to the public (and to future engineers and scientists) if they seriously plan to go anywhere in the future.

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 34 Comments

The Moon is Again Within Reach – Let’s Grab (and Hold On To) It

Captivated by the Moon 47 years ago. Are we due for a repeat? (Mad Men/AMC)

Captivated by the Moon 47 years ago. Are we due for a repeat? (Mad Men/AMC)

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the trailblazing robotic space mission to the Moon – Surveyor 1. With prophetic timing, a recent political development (along with various and sundry news reports and another anniversary) indicates a renewed interest in the Moon as a destination. This hodgepodge includes: specific funding and program direction by the U.S. House of Representatives in their 2017 NASA appropriations bill, news stories about Russian and Chinese lunar missions supposedly to be flown in the near future, and a piece on President Kennedy and the Apollo program (last Wednesday, May 25, was the 55th anniversary of Kennedy’s special appropriations speech to Congress, asking for the lunar landing goal). Under ordinary circumstances, these disparate threads might be random noise, but taken together, they may signal a possible “new” direction for our civil space program.

The most significant event is the new House appropriations bill, which not only terminates work on the absurd Asteroid Retrieval Mission (“no funds are included in this bill for NASA to continue planning efforts to conduct either robotic or crewed missions to an asteroid”) but specifically directs NASA instead to “develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles.” This development should come as no surprise, as many witnesses at numerous Congressional hearings and some Members themselves have repeatedly expressed puzzlement, frustration and dismay with the ARM concept. Congress has repeatedly attempted to steer NASA back toward the lunar goals of the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration – in the 2010 Authorization, both cislunar space and the lunar surface were specified as destinations for human missions, direction that the agency adamantly ignored.

This new funding action follows earlier direction in this year’s authorization bill to develop a cislunar habitat – a small facility to be located somewhere near the Moon – either in lunar orbit, or at one of the Lagrangian points. The purpose of such a facility would be to learn about the difficulties and opportunities of deep space habitation – including life support, transport and operations, and mitigation of the hard radiation environment. Having near instantaneous radio response, crew members could control an exploration rover on the lunar surface. Such capability would allow us to conduct geological fieldwork by creating the sensation of telepresence – the simulation of existence (being there) at a remote location. Additionally, a deep space habitat could serve as a jumping-off point for future missions to low lunar orbit and to the surface. The facility could eventually host future re-fueling, servicing and other activities, and with them, the crucial beginning of a permanent spacefaring system.

While Congress has been working to re-vector America’s space program back on the correct path, other nations have not remained idle. News reports appeared this past week about both Russian and Chinese lunar efforts. Russia claims to be planning for human lunar landings within the next decade, culminating in a lunar base by 2030. As is often the case when space plans are revealed in the media, it is difficult to get a full picture of the planned Ryvok spacecraft from its description, but it will be launched in several pieces and marshaled at the ISS for assembly and departure. In an innovative and encouraging twist, on return to Earth, Ryvok will deploy an umbrella-like device and use aerocapture to slow itself back into Earth orbit, capability that could make the vehicle a reusable Earth-Moon transfer system. Although news stories describe trips to the lunar surface, I think the stories are exaggerated, or at best, incomplete. You need about 7 kg of mass (mostly propellant) in LEO to get 1 kg of payload softly onto the surface of the Moon. And to come home, you need to bring your return vehicle (and the fuel for it) with you – at least initially. The description in the news makes it sound like this vehicle is an orbital spacecraft – one that could take both cargo and crew to lunar orbit. A separate vehicle might be needed for decent to the surface and return, but without the technical details, it is impossible to fully describe the Russian architecture.

China has long planned a sample return mission from the Moon (currently scheduled to take place with the Chang’E 5 mission next year). But the new announcement calls for a follow-up sample return mission from “the north and south poles of the Moon.” It is not clear whether the intention is to collect material from both poles or simply from one of them. No landing sites were announced, but one must assume that they will attempt to land in some location likely to contain water ice, in order to examine and characterize those deposits. New interest in polar volatiles by the Chinese is highly significant. They have already demonstrated their intention to use cislunar space for a variety of purposes. It would be wise to carefully monitor their intentions and activities there.

These reports are coming out around the occasion of the 55th Anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech to Congress announcing the “man-Moon-decade” goal of the Apollo program. A recent analysis notes this anniversary and offers some policy conclusions from that effort. Author Eric Berger contends that while the Apollo program was a magnificent achievement, we have been “stagnant” in space since that time. A basic misunderstanding with this analysis is found in the title of the piece: Kennedy’s vision for NASA inspired greatness, then stagnation. The Apollo program was not a “vision for NASA” – it was a vision for the nation, one driven by goals and objectives totally unrelated to spaceflight. The idea that we have been “stagnant” in space for the last 40 years is only valid from the perspective of a national crash program (Apollo), underwritten by a blank check.

What was Kennedy’s vision? JFK was the consummate Cold Warrior, who believed that the Soviet Union must be confronted and overcome wherever and whenever they were encountered. Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam were battlegrounds of ideas in the war for the hearts and minds of the non-aligned countries of the world. With the advent of Sputnik, Kennedy saw the Moon as a new battleground. The goal of Apollo was not to go there and then move onward to the planets – it was to be the first on the Moon, removing any doubt sown by Sputnik and Gagarin that the United States was somehow lagging in its technological capabilities. Given these Cold War origins, it does not follow that Apollo is, or should be, any kind of a template for future spacefaring efforts. It was a crash program designed to answer the requirements of a then-current, perceived world crisis, one that, through the victory of Apollo, saw the U.S. prevail years later, when we won the Cold War.

After Apollo, many in the space community believed that we could take the new capabilities given us by that template and go to Mars. That was never in the cards, then or now. Unlike Apollo, there is no geopolitical objective that would marshal the will of Congress and the nation to expend the resources needed to bludgeon the technical problems posed by such a mission into submission – as was done for the Moon. (Don’t know how to rendezvous in space? OK, we’ll learn how. Can’t build a computer small and light enough to navigate to and from the Moon? OK, we’ll design and build one.) That technical capability – and the Cold War industrial infrastructure necessary to support it – is gone (though it spawned much of today’s technology). To go into deep space today requires a different approach: the incremental building of a space-based infrastructure designed for permanence and reuse.

We’ve spent the last 40 years in LEO because after Apollo, NASA returned to the Wernher von Braun template of incremental extension of human reach. This model consists of four simple steps: LEO, space station, Moon tug, Mars mission. We’ve only completed the first two steps – building a cislunar transportation system is the next logical step. Those who advocate human missions to Mars as the “next goal” are abandoning the von Braun paradigm for the Apollo model (which so far, has given us 40 years in LEO). Von Braun himself recognized that Apollo was a side-step in the long-range exploration and permanence of humanity in space, but he supported it because he also knew the stakes of the geopolitical race. He believed we would use Apollo hardware to implement an incremental approach. But von Braun (along with many others) did not foresee that such a program was unsustainable without a political imperative (and the necessary fiscal resources). Although we have spent roughly the same amount of money on space in the last 40 years as we did on Apollo (and seemingly have gotten less for it), it is important to understand that in federal programs, it is not the total amount of money spent that is important; it’s the rate at which you spend it that counts.

Berger’s piece is a good reminder that Apollo is not coming back, barring some geopolitical, “Pearl Harbor-type” disaster. Thus, our task is to figure out how to slowly and affordably move beyond LEO. It is not a task suitable to arbitrary, irrelevant and impossible deadlines (e.g., humans to Mars in the 2030s). Spacefaring is a skill to be developed over decades, one that will return many benefits to a wide variety of space users, not simply for the scientists and not only for the “settlers.” Fortunately, more and more people recognize this reality and their ideas on how to implement such a movement are receiving serious consideration. Time will tell if reason prevails and we finally secure the ability to become true spacefarers.

 

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 18 Comments

Two Radio Appearances – one past, one future

The media blitz to promote The Value of the Moon continues apace!  I was a guest yesterday (Wednesday, May 18, 2016) on the local NPR radio show, Houston Matters, discussing the book and the benefits of lunar return in general.  That appearance can be heard HERE.

Next week (Thursday, May 26, 2016), I am scheduled to appear on another local NPR show, The Jefferson Exchange, which is on from 8:00 am to 10:00 am Pacific time — I am scheduled to appear in the second hour (9:00 am to 10:00 am, PDT).  The show is live-streamed HERE.

UPDATE:  The podcast of my appearance on the Jefferson Exchange (Oregon public radio) can be heard HERE.

Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 5 Comments

The Space Launch System “Jobs Program”

NASA's Space Launch System -- A boondoggle?

NASA’s Space Launch System — A boondoggle?

An endlessly repeated media trope is that NASA’s new launch vehicle program, the Space Launch System (SLS), is some kind of entitlement boondoggle, a gigantic “make-work” project for the agency – a derision summed up through the use of the derogatory phrase, “jobs program.” Mocked as a “rocket to nowhere,” the current SLS program takes a substantial fraction of the agency’s exploration budget, about $2 billion out of the $8.5 billion per year designated for human spaceflight. It is designed to launch massive payloads (initially, about 70 metric tons to low Earth orbit, later up to 120 metric tons) into space, allowing the use of pre-fueled departure stages to send payloads beyond LEO into deep space. In contrast to some misleading promotional slight of hand, the SLS will not “take astronauts to Mars” but it could launch ready-to-assemble pieces for a human Mars mission into space (it would take between 8 and 12 launches of an augmented SLS to get a fully fueled manned Mars vehicle into space and prepared for departure to Mars).

Why does the SLS draw such invective? It is claimed by space advocates that commercial launch can do the same job as SLS at a fraction of the cost. Less often spoken directly, but clearly part of this meme, is that the part of the money NASA currently spends on SLS should instead be given to “New Space” private companies to develop and produce heavy lift launch services at lower cost (predominantly, but not exclusively, to SpaceX for their “Falcon Heavy” launch vehicle), thereby freeing up money that NASA could spend on hardware such as habitats, landers and other peripheral equipment needed for future human deep space missions.

How much of this story is true? Why are we building a rocket whose mission and destination are uncertain? Would it be better to use “privately developed” heavy lift launch vehicles (HLV) for human deep space missions? And why is a heavy lift vehicle desirable anyway? Could we not do the same thing using smaller launch vehicles and space-based propellant depots?

Human missions to deep space destinations require large amounts of mass in LEO because we need to protect and preserve the lives of the crew, take all consumables and fuel for the journey, and carry the equipment and supporting machines needed to carry out the mission objectives. The main benefit of using an HLV is that fewer individual launches are needed to get the same amount of mass into space – with fewer launches of larger payloads, a lower launch cost per unit mass is realized. A few larger pieces are more easily assembled in space than are a multitude of smaller ones. The cost buy down is mitigated somewhat by the assumption of more risk, as the loss of a single HLV will more greatly impact the mission campaign than the loss of a single smaller vehicle. But the benefits of fewer launches overall and less complex on-orbit operations are usually judged to outweigh these drawbacks.

There are also historical reasons for the use of an HLV. The agency’s experience with the Apollo program created the mindset among many mission designers that very heavy lift launch vehicles enable deep space missions. Even the Space Shuttle was sized to Saturn V proportions; although its gross liftoff weight (2000 metric tons) was comparable to Apollo-Saturn (2950 metric tons), it had much lower payload capacity because of the requirement for the 100-ton orbiter to return and be reused. With modifications, the Shuttle stack was able to use launch infrastructure created for the HLV Saturn V. Likewise, the existing Shuttle support systems and infrastructure are now being modified for the forthcoming SLS program.

Complaints against the SLS come from several streams of thought. It is argued that building the SLS is merely a program to make a rocket, but one having no place to go. In fact, this arrangement was exactly the course recommended by the 2009 Augustine committee, who contended that the agency should become “destination agnostic” and focus on a “Flexible Path,” in which systems would be developed first and destinations chosen afterwards. President Obama seemingly embraced that recommendation in 2010 by terminating the Moon as a destination for the American human space program. We were going to visit an asteroid instead (sometime), but finding no suitable targets for human missions, the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” concept was embraced. SLS can certainly support that mission, for what it is worth (which is not much).

Another criticism of SLS is that NASA should not be spending its budget making rockets – especially a new launch vehicle system – and instead should purchase launch services from the “private” sector. Certainly NASA does this already for robotic missions and satellites, so why not let commercially available launch vehicles serve the human program as well?

No existing commercial launch vehicle (nor any anticipated in the near future) has the launch capacity of the SLS. The largest extant commercial LV is the Delta-IV Heavy, which can put a bit less than 30 metric tons into LEO, less than half the capacity of the core SLS. Critics of SLS claim that the advent of SpaceX’s “Falcon Heavy” vehicle will render SLS unnecessary, but that launch vehicle was announced in 2011 and we have yet to see even a structural test article of it. It is stated that this vehicle will be able to put about 53 metric tons into LEO, significantly less than the 70 ton payload of the SLS core. The acceptance of this lower performance by its advocates is predicated on a proclaimed vastly lower cost, but as no Falcon Heavy has yet to fly, we have no idea of what its cost would be. Moreover, there are good reasons to question the technical viability of the Falcon Heavy. Released design details show that it consists of 3 Falcon 9 rockets, strapped together and burning simultaneously. Such a configuration would consist of 27 engines, all of which must burn for the same duration and thrust level. The Soviet Union once had a launch vehicle (the N-1) that had 30 rocket engines; it flew four times, each flight ending in a catastrophic fireball, largely as a result destabilizations following an engine-out condition.

The problem lies not with the rocket that we are building – it lies with the mission that we do not have. SLS did not cause the destinations for human spaceflight to go away – that was a considered and deliberate decision by the current administration. In response, the Congress (who had twice voted their overwhelming support for the goals of lunar return, in two different authorization bills) mandated the construction of SLS, largely because NASA was dragging its feet on doing anything about it. Congress was concerned that an important national resource – the industrial and technical infrastructure (including its human resources) to build and fly HLV rockets – was being lost through neglect and attrition. They asked the agency to come up with a specific design for an HLV system but received no cooperation. So, they consulted external technical experts to derive the specifications of a general purpose HLV and mandated this design in the authorization. Its purpose was to make sure that the vehicle would be built and to assure that our national capability in this area would not be lost.

Congress reasoned that the SLS could be used for any deep space mission a future administration might consider. The reinstatement of the lunar surface as a prime candidate for future missions is clear from the language of the 2010 NASA Authorization, which specified the technical details for SLS, and at the same time, listed a variety of destinations for America’s human spaceflight program. In the preamble to that bill, cislunar space is listed as a destination in 4 of the 7 provisions of that section, while the presence of humans on the lunar surface is mentioned in 3 of those sections. These declarations were ignored by the agency.

A final ridiculous criticism of the SLS program is that it is simply a “jobs program” for NASA. Well, of course it is! Federal programs create jobs for the people who bring them to fruition. The unstated implication of the “jobs program” epithet is that it is useless “make-work,” like a work crew digging a ditch and then re-filling it, all simply to collect a paycheck. But “jobs programs” are now a fundamental part of our national existence (Try Googling the phrase “jobs programs” and see how many hits you get). However, some federal “jobs” aren’t make-work, but instead create or maintain national capabilities that are determined to be important or vital to the security and prosperity of the nation. We supported an elaborate industrial and technical defense establishment for the 50 years following World War II not to “make jobs” but because we believed that such capabilities were critical to the national interest. The SLS program was created because it was feared that once lost, the ability to make and operate a heavy lift launch system might vanish forever. There are always repercussions when you create a power vacuum.

No one but NASA (Saturn, Shuttle) and the Soviets (Energia) have successfully operated an HLV System. Such a system is needed for deep space human missions – at least until we can transition to a space-based transportation system provisioned by lunar resources, rather than one which requires that everything be brought up from the deep gravity well of Earth. The SLS is not perfect – it certainly isn’t the system I would have chosen to build (Shuttle side-mount could have been flying now for a fraction of what we have spent to date on SLS). But it exists and it will provide a capability that we can use to go back to the Moon and to the planets beyond.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 97 Comments

Lunar Resources: Beyond the Fringe

A new, somewhat philosophical post up at Air & Space on the recent Royal Astronomical Society meeting in London on using space resources.  By the way, that great, appropriate title (alluding to the British comedy group) was a suggestion of my editor at Air & Space, Tony Reichhardt.  Thanks, Tony!

The meeting in London was a good one, with lots of interesting presentations.  Comments on the post are welcome.

On another note, I will be on The Space Show this coming Sunday (May 1, 2016) at 2:00 pm Central time, discussing my new book, The Value of the Moon.  Feel free to listen and call in the show with questions or comments.

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 13 Comments

Organizational Whiplash: Why NASA Needs A Change in Direction

We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive. – C. S. Lewis

NASA’s “Journey to Mars” – Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

NASA’s “Journey to Mars” – Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

Administrator Charles Bolden, seeking to sway future national space policy as we approach a post-Obama NASA, pressed the point that the agency’s current path is just fine and that he doesn’t want anyone interfering with “progress” made under his leadership. A variety of published opinion seconds that narrative, noting that constantly changing the emphasis and direction of a program generally leads to no progress at all.

In order to accept these judgments, one must agree that the general direction and well being of the agency is a positive one. I would argue just the reverse. The complete lack of strategic vision currently extant in our civil space program has led to organizational chaos and inexorable decline. Questions about the lack of clear direction, the articulation of intermediate milestones, and the absence of any roadmap for accomplishment dominate Congressional hearings and inquiries, and the writings of informed observers. Bolden’s complaint about the doleful effects of “shifting gears” for NASA is disingenuous, as a hard-won, bipartisan consensus for strategic direction in civil space was cavalierly discarded in 2010.

Let us pause from these philosophical ponderings for a moment and consider the current status of the American civil space program. The International Space Station is operating at full capacity, even though we must procure our access to it from the Russians. Six years after its initiation, the so-called “Commercial Crew” program has yet to fly a single test article (the crewed Dragon is not the same vehicle as the cargo carrier). Research on the ISS focuses primarily on life and materials science, with little engineering experimentation on deep spaceflight technology being conducted. Such research would be relevant to future NASA activities, but leadership is lacking.

We’re told that the overall strategic direction of NASA is a human mission to Mars, memorably typified by the Internet hashtag #JourneytoMars, carrying with it all the semblance of reality that such a designation implies. There’s been no revision to the Mars Design Reference Mission (current version, DRM 5.0, dated July 2009) or even a vague articulation of general principles for a mission design. That architecture employed elements of unobtainium, such as a nuclear thermal rocket. We’ve had promotion of the “testing ground” concept for deep space human missions in cislunar space, but no concrete mission plans beyond the heavily criticized “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (formerly “Asteroid Retrieval Mission,” but always the ARM), designed to deflect public attention away from the fact that no real plan for human spaceflight beyond LEO exists.

The ARM is cloaked in the façade of “technology development,” with specific reference to the need for development of the solar electric propulsion (SEP) – the current bag of magic beans that allegedly will carry us to Mars. In reality, SEP is already a well-developed technology (the asteroid mission Dawn uses it) and one need not haul a space rock to develop something already in use. In truth, SEP could be employed to transport cargo throughout cislunar space and for use on the Moon. Simply put, the tyranny of the rocket equation rules, so all spaceflight and human missions to Mars require that thousands of tons of mass be sent at high velocities along precisely calculated paths. No technical solution, short of anti-gravity, can cut this Gordian Knot.

But more than simply lacking a means of how to get there, no one has yet to articulate a viable reason for the journey. There are numerous vague assertions that we are searching for martian life or preparing to “place life there” (by colonization), but the first rationale is hardly enough to justify a 50-year, trillion dollar federal program and the latter is sheer fantasy. What will humans on Mars do? Explore? Great, but then what? Public appetites for the new and exciting are easily and quickly satiated. Some long-term benefit is needed to justify the levels of expenditure human Mars missions require. Perhaps there are useful minerals to mine on Mars or some other product of significant financial value, but at the moment, we have no idea if, where, or how they might occur. Colonists must do something with their time, and simply surviving is not enough to justify it as the ultimate goal (although that will be the principal preoccupation of early Mars settlers). Besides, there is the issue of whether “colonization” is an appropriate function of a government-run space program.

Should other NASA activities become the new focus of the agency? Although there is a widespread notion that unmanned (robotic) missions are the “jewel in the crown” of the agency, we are in fact reaching a point of diminishing returns in that arena as well. With the reconnaissance of the Solar System largely complete (we have sent missions to all the planets, including asteroids and comets), the focus of new robotic planetary missions is on answering increasingly detailed – and increasingly arcane – scientific questions. These new generations of spacecraft are both more capable and more expensive. Yet such missions produce information that is much less comprehensible to the taxpaying public. The James Webb Space Telescope – at a cost of almost $10 billion – is likely to be the last of the large space-based astronomical facilities. Monitoring of the Earth’s environment from space is an agency activity that has become increasingly politicized over the past few years, generating much ill will throughout the communities involved. This area is likely to become more, not less, contentious over time. Aeronautics is a minor activity and will continue to be unremarkable, in both budget and accomplishment.

Yet we are being told to “stay the course.”

NASA supporters usually mean this phrase in a relatively restricted sense. They claim that with the Orion and SLS development coming along reasonably well, those programs should be kept funded and on track. Given that the alternatives amount to nothing, it’s not an unreasonable calculus. But both projects need something to do and someplace to go. Given their origins as vehicles designed to enable human flights within cislunar space, this is the logical arena in which to operate. But in this case, the “where” leaves begging the question of the “what?” Besides the ARM, it has been proposed to develop a cislunar “habitat” to be deployed somewhere in the vicinity of the Moon. But what shall we do there? A small habitat in deep space, outside the van Allen radiation belts of the Earth, will be exposed to both galactic cosmic rays and (potentially fatal) coronal mass ejections from the Sun. Such a vehicle will need some type of significant shielding for long-term habitation.

Of course, the obvious answer to the problem of what to do is to return to the surface of the Moon and develop its resources to enable more distant space goals. But under the current regime, it has been decreed that such thinking is not permitted within the agency. (Although there is no formal written policy stating this, my sources attest to its reality nonetheless.) This discouragement of any logical thinking appears to be solely in response to the absurd decree by President Obama in 2010 that there was no need to go to the Moon because “we’ve been there.”

A blatantly misdirected policy program compels us to change course. Why choose to remain idle instead of re-vectoring back to the more promising path? The “Journey to Mars” is a fraud and commercial human spaceflight has yet to take off (and, there is reason to suspect that such endeavor is far distant). So we are left – not simply with nothing, but worse than nothing – a “nothing” that is being marketed as having value and being imminent. The next administration might appoint another “blue-ribbon commission” to review our space program, but the last time that was done, it was a policy disaster. We were on a perfectly acceptable and useful track in the development of human spaceflight eight years ago. We still have the pieces needed to pick up where we left off and head back to the Moon. And there, we will learn how to explore, live and prosper in space using the resources of the Moon.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 57 Comments

2016 Columbia Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers

Yesterday, while I was 38,000 feet above the Atlantic on the way home from London, I was to have received the 2016 American Society of Civil Engineers Columbia Medal.  I am very honored to receive this award and note with awe the company of past recipients of this medal.

To quote directly from the award letter,

You have been selected by the Aerospace Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers to receive the 2016 Columbia Medal For outstanding service as a geologist specializing in the terrestrial planets, with extensive background in geology and planetary science, including interpretation of remote-sensing and image data and integrated studies with information from planetary samples.  In selecting you for this award, the committee particularly noted your contributions that advance aerospace engineering.

I knew that I would be out of the country during the meeting and thus, unable to accept the award in person, so I prepared a short acceptance and technical talk video to play at the meeting.  I have posted this video on YouTube.  Comments and feedback are welcome.

Also, next Tuesday (April 19, 2016) is the publication date of my new book The Value of the Moon: How to Explore, Live and Prosper in Space Using the Moon’s Resources.  It is a history, a memoir and an advocacy of using the Moon to create new space capabilities.  Blogging has been light because of my attention to this and other matters, but with the book launch accomplished, I should soon be back to writing those wonderful commentaries that you have come to know and love.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 22 Comments

Stability and Instability in Space

Congressman John Culberson (R-TX) testifies on his proposed bill to reorganize NASA.

Congressman John Culberson (R-TX 7) testifies on his proposed bill to reorganize NASA.

The House Space Subcommittee held two hearings on the U.S. civil space program in February – one where the strategic direction of the human spaceflight effort was discussed, and a second one dealing with the configuration of NASA as an executing entity for such policy. The somewhat understated subtext of both of these hearings is that our space program currently lacks coherency and strategic direction. In partial response to this state of affairs, Rep. John Culberson of Texas has proposed legislation (the Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015) to try and resolve some of these operational difficulties – legislation designed to reconfigure the existing interface between NASA and the executive and legislative branches of government. Many have given considerable thought as to why this bill is necessary and why it could be a solution to our ongoing space policy chaos.

It is clear from much of the discussion at these two hearings that despite repeated claims by the agency, no one believes that we are truly on a “#JourneytoMars.” This situation is in part technical, in that NASA does not have a well-defined architecture, or even a roadmap, to develop the technology to conduct such a mission. For example, the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) is widely recognized as a pointless distraction. But equally significant is that by repeatedly over-promising with rhetoric and under-delivering on actual spaceflight capability, the current incarnation of the agency has little political or programmatic credibility.

The basic source of our dilemma comes from the decision made by the administration in 2010 to unilaterally terminate Project Constellation (yet retain the planned retirement of the Space Shuttle) and to remove the Moon from the path of deep space human spaceflight – for essentially trivial and specious reasons (“We’ve been there!”). Congress had twice endorsed the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration in two separate authorizations – one while under control of the Republicans (2006) and one while under Democratic control (2008). This made at least the general exploratory path of “Moon-then-Mars” a bipartisan consensus, something rare and remarkable in Washington. True enough, the Constellation architecture had run into some technical (and hence, fiscal) difficulties, but none that couldn’t be solved. In any event, it was still possible in 2009 (when Obama took office) to adjust the architecture (in terms of funding, schedule and implementation) without throwing out the hard fought for and won consensus on strategic direction that the previous two authorizations represented.

Instead, the VSE was discarded and replaced with (essentially) nothing. Sure, there was talk about “flexible paths” and “asteroid missions” but nothing came of either idea. Although the Flexible Path was deceptive (a recipe for widget-making and strategic confusion), the possibility of a human mission to an asteroid was seriously examined – and found to be wanting. In essence, the problem is that the Orion spacecraft (the only piece of the Constellation spacecraft left intact) is designed primarily for weeks-long duration cislunar missions, not for missions to an asteroid, which last for many months. When no near-Earth asteroid suitable for a human mission was found, the agency substituted a gimmicky plan to retrieve an asteroid and bring it back into cislunar space, there to be accessible by the spacecraft that we were still building (but not for its original intended purpose). But it could be said that we’d be flying beyond LEO, approaching an asteroid, examining it by humans who would then be able to bring a piece of it back to Earth.

In order to give the impression that a long-term direction was being pursued, NASA re-embraced (again) human Mars missions as their “ultimate goal.” This gambit retread has two advantages: 1) it simulates continuity, as Mars had always been assumed to be the eventual destination for human missions; and 2) it is so far into the future that no one need worry about how to do it or figure out how to pay for it – the perfect government program. A space goal that is more than two decades away might as well be non-existent. In such a situation, any space activity, no matter how idiotic or worthless, can be rationalized as a step within a “technology roadmap” that would eventually enable us to achieve that “ultimate goal.” A long-range plan with no specifics is infinitely malleable; no one can prove that the ARM is not relevant to future Mars missions. This ludicrous situation has been carefully re-packaged by NASA – along with a large helping of public relations glitz – into their current “#JourneytoMars” campaign, a hodge-podge of real hardware and fake missions, with a thick icing of Hollywood schmaltz (The Martian).

This very real and dismal state of affairs is the kind of situation targeted by Culberson’s bill. In his plan, both the President and Congress would appoint eleven members to a “Board of Directors.” This board would meet quarterly to review NASA’s progress and recommend changes or shifts in emphasis. The board would consist of space professionals – people who work, or who have worked, in the area of space science and engineering (with the idea that these members would be qualified to understand, judge and pronounce on technical merits of a given spaceflight proposal). The board would also conduct special studies and reviews on any topic about which the Congress or administration had particular concerns.

Along with having advisory oversight, the Board of Directors would have considerable influence over the program. Specifically, the board would be responsible for helping to select the agency Administrator (and Deputy), who would serve a ten-year term of office. This selection would come from a list of nominees provided by the Board to the President. Presumably, this arrangement would assure that the Administrator would be technically knowledgeable enough to steer the agency onto the right tactical path once a strategic direction had been articulated, with special attention given to seeing that they remain on the planned path. Interestingly, the proposed legislation also provides that the board can recommend the Administrator’s “removal for cause” – for being unresponsive and/or ineffective. This provision in no way eliminates the ability of a President to fire an existing administrator for reasons of their own. In addition, the Board would have one other significant power – it would devise a yearly recommended budget for the agency, independent of the one drawn up by the administration’s own Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Both budgets would be submitted to the Congress for consideration, with the executive required to explain any differences that exist between the two.

This last provision is quite interesting and no doubt could be the source of a lot of mischief, depending upon how Congress reacts to the possible submission of two wildly divergent budgets. A memorable moment came during Thursday’s hearing (1:19:30 of this video) when former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin stated: “Anything that can be done to ameliorate and control the influence of the OMB on the process would be welcome. The OMB is a haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not very well qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned.” Griffin’s pointed statement is indicative of some unhealed wounds from past battles between parts of the administration and the agency.

The intent of the proposed law is to insulate the agency from some of the more devastating political winds of change – assuring that strategic decisions are made for good technical reasons. Since the new arrangement reduces the power that the executive holds over NASA, they will likely oppose it. In part, the desire and purpose of the bill is to make NASA a less political agency, similar to the FBI, whose Director is also appointed for a 10-year term and is not directly tied to a given administration. But it is also desired that good scientific and technical oversight be brought to the agency, a proposition I am sympathetic to, having recommended in the 2004 Aldridge report the re-establishment of the National Space Council, a White House group designed to watch over and make sure that NASA properly implements a chosen strategic direction.

Our current mess has deep roots and complex causes, but is largely the result of unilateral action taken by an administration that, without consultation, discarded a strategic direction that Congress had collectively agreed upon. At the hearing, Griffin commented that the 2006 and 2008 authorizations were “good strategic plans” and wondered why Congress did not act when the President casually eliminated them. In point of fact, the 2010 NASA authorization reiterated the goals of the VSE, specifically mentioning the critical role of cislunar space, including the lunar surface. This direction was ignored by the agency, wherein it became a thought-crime to even mention any possibility of human crews going to the lunar surface. In the subsequent rough-and-tumble of operational plans being submitted to Congress, that defiance of the “return to the lunar surface” mandate was papered over and lost in the subsequent noise of everyday government operations.

Culberson’s proposal is interesting in many ways. It would provide some needed technical oversight to the agency and spread the political responsibility for success (or failure) on a few more shoulders. I would be surprised if this proposal was accepted by the administration, seeing as how it would reduce their power and decision-making role. But the bill is a good point of departure for a debate on how to structure and conduct a realistic, cumulative, multi-decadal program in a government dominated by short-term, political battles. The NASA of the Apollo-era worked because there was an agreed national purpose to human spaceflight. The idea of national purpose no longer prevails, as battles and debates over Moon vs. Mars, human vs. robotic, and government vs. private are perforce ideological and thus, eventually political. I will be watching with interest as Rep. John Culberson’s Space Leadership Preservation Act of 2015 bill moves though the Congress.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 36 Comments

Mysterious Moon Sounds

I have a new post up at Air & Space discussing the recent flurry of news stories concerning the old “music of the spheres” chestnut about strange sounds heard in lunar orbit.  The coverage seemed a bit too credulous for my tastes.  Comment here if you wish.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space technology | 10 Comments

Charting a Course in Human Exploration

Testifying to the House Space Subcommittee on February 3, 2016.

Testifying to the House Space Subcommittee on February 3, 2016.  I’m the guy on the far right.

I had the honor of testifying to Congress again this week.  The hearing was before the House Subcommittee on Space and was entitled, “Charting a Course: Expert Perspectives on NASA’s Human Exploration Proposals.”  Although I will have some more detailed thoughts on this event later, I post here the links to the hearing web site, the charter, and my testimony.

Hearing website

Hearing Charter

Spudis testimony

Video of hearing

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 28 Comments