The New Space Resources Law – Close But No Cigar

Mining the Solar System -- does the new law make this more or less likely? (from

Mining the Solar System — does the new law make this more or less likely? (from

There’s some over-the-top commentary in the space press on the new “commercial space” bill just signed into law (The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, H.R. 2262). In particular, the law is touted as “… the single greatest recognition of property rights in history” by Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources Inc. , a company created to mine near-Earth asteroids. Now, thanks to this Congress and President, the unimaginable wealth of the universe has been dropped into our laps.


The actual section of the bill dealing with space resources (Title IV) is quite short and somewhat perfunctory. It defines a space resource (and that term is used: space resources not “asteroid” resources) as “an abiotic (non-biological) resource in situ in outer space.” Thus, the materials of planetary-sized objects (other than the Earth) are apparently covered, including lunar polar ice. The bill prescribes that the President shall “facilitate,” “discourage the creation of barriers to,” and “promote” commerce in-space resources, all very commendable (though vague) but also all acting under “appropriate Federal agencies.” So, if anyone thought that this bill would suddenly unleash a new gold rush, it will be one taken under careful bureaucratic supervision.

The best part of the bill comes in Section 51303, which essentially states that what you harvest from space, you own, along with the appropriate rights to keep, use, sell or trade it to any entity. This is a good thing, but arguably, we had this right already. Or did we? Was it arguable previously that we did not have this right, and that now, with a stroke of the pen, we do have it? What has changed?

A big sticking point remaining is that while the advent of this law may make New Space entrepreneurs feel better, it does not resolve the questionable international legal status of space resource utilization. The United States is not a signatory to the infamous 1979 Moon Treaty, which places lunar resources (and by extension, asteroid resources) under international “community” ownership. The Senate refused to ratify the Moon Treaty, but we are signatories to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars any territorial claim in space by any nation. Proponents of space resource utilization have long surmised that private claims on resources are not forbidden by this treaty; but individuals are subject to the laws of nations of which they are citizens, so a space miner could find himself in possession of a small asteroid, while at the same time have his terrestrial assets seized through some legal process or claim.

We have gotten along fine without this law for the last 50 years, largely because no commercial entity is anywhere close to actually accessing and using an off-Earth resource. Now that we’re sitting around twiddling our thumbs in space and drooling over the advent of entrepreneurial exploitation of space resources, companies and advocacy groups loudly and persistently call for government action and laws to “make it so.” But one can imagine a variety of circumstances in which this law will make no difference whatsoever. If a private company engaged in some activity that involved exploitation of an extraterrestrial resource of limited extent (e.g., a rich deposit of ice on the Moon near permanent sunlight) and their possession of that resource was challenged by some nation-state present nearby, how might the American government react? Presumably, peaceful diplomatic means would be pursued at first, but then when they can’t-don’t-won’t agree, then what?

The U.S. federal government guarantees the rights of American citizens (including corporations) to their property and is responsible for resolving conflicts. Often conflicts escalate to higher levels, up to and including stalemates (that block free enterprise) and confrontations that decide the outcome. Would the United States go to war over a dispute involving space resources that some company might have with another nation? I don’t know, but I suspect that the answer is no – and other countries (and investors) will know this.

There are many reasons I advocate a return to the Moon as our next national goal in space and one reason, not often considered, is the establishment of an American right of access to space and its resources. The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, despite appearances, does not establish this right. Laws that we pass are not binding on other nations or entities outside the boundaries of the United States. Ultimately, future disputes (and make no mistake, there will be some, despite the best intentions of all parties) must be settled between entities of comparable status and between their parent nations. Thus, I contend that we must have “skin in the game” at an international level, not only at the corporate one.

Declaring the rights of our citizens to find and exploit space resources is one thing; defending that right in a potentially hostile world is another. In the same way that ships operated under American registry are protected by the diplomatic, economic and military power of the American government, future space businesses will look to their government (as they must and have a right to) to protect their rights, enforce contracts and act as an insulating layer between them and the cold realities of global politics (what’s written on paper is only as good as your ability to enforce it, or ignore it). In its earliest stages, the financial stakes are likely to be small and not well understood in terms of their national economic and security implications, so it is unlikely that the federal government would “go to the mat” to defend the interests of a small (somewhat experimental) business.

But when taking the long-view (that of any serious investor), if that same government’s own right of access to and use of some extraterrestrial resource were threatened, the full weight of that government’s various assets would be brought to bear on a resolution of that threat (or whose mere presence would short-circuit outside agression to begin with). This is one reason why the utilization of space resources – an activity critical to the long-term future of humanity in space – is not only an appropriate activity for the federal civil space program, it is an essential one, in anticipation of and in parallel with private development of these resources. Right now, we are uncertain just how difficult it is to extract and use space resources for a variety of applications. In short, this activity is an engineering research and development effort. This is exactly what NASA was established to do – to determine if space-related activities and technologies are possible and if they are, to then encourage the private sector to engage in such activities, using the results of government-funded research to grow their investments and expand our economy.

So while I applaud this bipartisan effort to legally endorse the principle of space resource utilization, it is not sufficient. Instead of pursuing wasteful public relations stunts designed to convince the public that we are on our way to Mars, NASA should instead work on understanding how the material and energy resources of near-Earth space – particularly the water at the poles of the Moon – can be used to create new spacefaring capability. The federal government should do this because the creation of routine access to cislunar space is important to our national strategic and commercial interests. It is also vital to establish our national rights and obligations within the world spacefaring community. U.S. commercial space companies will be there once they know that their nation’s leaders understand the stakes involved and are ready to lead on this new frontier.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 10 Comments

Another Way to Land on the Moon

New post up at Air & Space in which I describe my idea for a robotic mission to the lunar poles that uses multiple hard landing probes to measure water contents.  Comment on the idea here, if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space technology, Space transportation | 18 Comments

Blame Game

NASA outlines their master plan for a human Mars mission.

NASA outlines their master plan for a human Mars mission.

“I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally to blame.”President Ronald Reagan, March 8, 1983

Wayne Hale’s speech at the 2015 von Braun Symposium in Huntsville is getting some attention in the space policy commentariat. Hale talks to “the family,” as he puts it – meaning, I suppose, the space flight community (which is a family of sorts, as in the Sopranos). He urges us to stop “squabbling” amongst ourselves, and “get on with it.” If you seek someone to “blame” for the current stasis of our civil space program, he opines, “look in the mirror.”

Well, okay. I have. And what I see is a guy who’s devoted his life to the movement of people beyond LEO, sometimes wrong about specifics but more often right about major trends and strategic direction. And there isn’t a doubt in my mind that in this sorry saga of the decline and fall of American spaceflight, there are people who deserve blame. I reject – completely and utterly – the concept that somehow, “all of us” (including those who have realized that this is no longer the era of Apollo and that new approaches are necessary) are responsible for the American civil space program going to Hell in a hand-basket. While it is clear that some of us have tried to find a path forward without doubling the NASA budget, or demanding a national commitment to an Apollo-like effort, it is equally clear that others have promoted just such an unsustainable path, either through poorly reasoned devotion to a flags-and-footprints Mars mission, ignorance of history, or in a deliberate effort to foster chaos and the demise of American manned spaceflight.

We have a limited amount of resources to expend on space – an expensive undertaking no matter how you slice it – and that means that choices must be made. Some programs are achievable and some are not. Some destinations can serve as a springboard to real and lasting capability in space and some don’t. Some efforts are politically sustainable and provide payback on reasonable time-scales and some do not. The siren call of Kumbaya, group hugs and all of us “getting along” is as useless as it is childish. We have wasted the last seven years in the challenge of moving humans beyond LEO and there is no doubt in my mind that some are blameworthy.

A large collective effort requires leadership for success. When such leadership fails, those responsible for that failure often affix blame for their misguided policies (or their failed attempt to shift direction for ideological reasons) on those who had relied on sound leadership. Dissent from the chosen path is viewed as disruption. Recently, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden claimed that we are pursuing a “visionary path” and that any re-vectoring by the agency from it would bring “disaster.” Such caution was not a concern five years ago when the current administration unilaterally decided to terminate the strategic direction of the civil space program. Bolden is saying “I can do whatever I want, but you can’t make any changes to it.” This plaintive whining sounds like (and should be read as) the parting words of a lame duck who knows his “strategic path” has little chance of remaining in place past his tenure of office.

Are dissenters from the current path the villains of the space program? Are all of us guilty of the non-progress and aimlessness currently evident in civil space? If the agency’s “Journey to Mars” (which is neither a “journey” nor will it take anyone to Mars) is fundamentally misguided (either through inadvertent or deliberate misdirection), then who has standing to make that case? And if it is determined that the current path will not lead to the capabilities and missions promised, on what possible basis should we continue in that direction? If you find yourself traveling down the wrong road, stopping and turning around is the first step towards fixing the problem.

In 2010, President Obama cancelled the Vision for Space Exploration. Initially, it was claimed that this was merely the termination of an unsustainable program (Project Constellation), based on the report of the 2009 Augustine committee. But not only was Constellation ended, its initial destination (the Moon) was also written out of future plans. The Augustine committee did not recommend this – they specifically made no recommendations, but offered alternative paths to future directions in human spaceflight, including the lunar surface. It was the President himself who removed the Moon from the critical path, for reasons that appear trivial (“We’ve been there!”) and specious. The removal of the lunar surface as a destination for the American civil space program left a predictable and obvious gap – a manned Mars mission is (and has been) so far in the future, that we are incapable (literally) of drawing up a working blueprint for how to achieve it.

We are told by Bolden that the President has “set us on a visionary course” for space. But there is no identified path to get us from where we are (low Earth orbit) to Mars. The agency’s recent release of the “Journey to Mars” report merely outlines current projects (mostly the Orion spacecraft and the SLS launch vehicle), hints at some possible missions in cislunar space (a “habitat” in deep space), and gives little attention to the difficulties, and no discussion of, the expense required to solve the knotty technical issues that separate us from the first human mission to the surface of Mars. This is a “visionary course?”

By setting the goal of a Mars mission as the only rationale for human spaceflight, the administration does accomplish some political aims. The mission is certainly imaginative, as it is beyond our current capabilities and thus, this is a “future-” oriented project. Estimates suggest that we will be ready to attempt a human mission to the surface of Mars sometime in the late 2030s (more likely, 2050 and beyond). Because that goal is so distant and undefined, virtually any space activity can be claimed to be relevant to its achievement. Setting such a distant goal assures that no meaningful mission funding will be needed during the current administration’s term of office. As they say, talk is cheap – we are drowning in a sea of talk about future space utopias.

So damn those stupid space advocates! All they do is argue!

You’re damned if you advocate for a program – you are blocking consensus by creating division and are therefore, a roadblock to progress. (Some ideas ARE better than others.)

You’re damned if you lobby for a specific policy over another – you are either encouraging government “pork” or commercial “cronyism.” (We must work together, but we need sustainability.)

You’re damned if you don’t “excite the public” – you haven’t touched the right nerve that opens the spigot to a torrent of government funding. (After 60 years, there is no evidence whatsoever that “public excitement” drives space accomplishment.)

So by all means, let us look into the mirror. Not all in life is relative – some things are right and some things are wrong. Pursuing a flags-and-footprints, manned Mars mission run along the lines of the Apollo program is a fool’s errand. The historical circumstances that made Apollo possible (e.g., Cold War, an expansive aerospace industrial infrastructure) are no longer operative. We must design and advance a human presence in space beyond LEO using an incremental, cumulative and affordable architecture. Some of us are trying to do exactly that. Others aren’t.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 50 Comments

The Colorado Plateau – An Impact Feature?

Some geological thoughts while driving across the country.  Could the Colorado Plateau Be an Ancient Impact Scar?  Comments welcome.
Posted in Lunar Science, planetary exploration | 9 Comments

Lunar Water Creates New Capabilities in Space

I have a new post up at Air & Space on the real value of going to the Moon to learn how to extract, process and use the water at the poles.  Comment here if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 26 Comments

NASA = Mars = Delusional

Hollywood blazes a trail into the Solar System - Film at Eleven.

Hollywood blazes a trail into the Solar System – Film at Eleven.

The release of a hit movie about the adventures of an astronaut marooned on the Red Planet, coupled with the “discovery” of liquid water running on the surface of Mars, has been an intoxicating moment in an otherwise dry spell for the Marsophiles at our national space agency. This confluence of events, accompanied by hosanna-singing press coverage (at least partly orchestrated by the agency itself), has advocates toasting each other – our “#JourneyToMars” is proceeding apace. Hallelujah! Our national space program might be saved!

Then again, maybe not. How much of this hype is rooted in real accomplishment and how much is mere puffery? If finding “water on Mars” sounds familiar, that’s because finding “water on Mars” is announced every couple of years and each time, we get the same breathless assertions that “human missions” to the planet (sometimes even habitation) are now possible. But is any of this true?

Publishing a scientific paper does not mean that its conclusions are correct or that a problem has been solved. Even if the new interpretation is correct, it does nothing to advance the cause of a human Mars mission; it is only an incremental advance in our knowledge of the planet (previous alternative explanations for crater wall streaks did not involve the flow of liquid water).

Some news accounts assert that the availability of liquid water makes human surface missions easier to undertake, as water is a vital consumable for long-term presence of people on the martian surface. However, this liquid water is extremely saline (a brine) and needs extensive distillation and processing to make it useable, requiring much more energy than would be needed to simply melt ground ice, which is already relatively pure and whose presence on the planet has been known for the last 40 years. The existence of saline brines is geologically interesting but it has no significant implications for sustaining a human presence.

The real impact of this discovery relates to the supposed link between liquid water and the possible emergence and presence of microbial life. The Quest for Life Elsewhere obsession has consumed NASA for over 50 years. The “Follow the water” strategy for Mars was a surrogate for the “look for the bugs” quest. In an amusing twist, the increasing likelihood of microbes existing on Mars creates a problem for a NASA intent on sending astronauts there, as we could permanently contaminate the martian biosphere, rendering future scientific results questionable to the extent that they might be unanswerable. This mindset is expressed in a recent Planetary Society blog post, where potential Mars astronauts are characterized as possessing “filthy meatbag bodies” that should be kept in orbit, so as not to irreversibly change the Eden-like martian surface.

New scientific discoveries enjoy short press cycles and then rapidly exit, stage left. But not to worry, the real event – the one that NASA is hitching their star to – is the release of the movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, in which an astronaut struggles for survival after being accidentally left behind during a future human mission to Mars. The story is entertaining and I enjoyed the book (I have not seen the movie). It reminded me of another movie with a very similar plotline, the classic Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964). Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun and nobody in Hollywood ever lost box office by re-making something previously done. What is remarkable is the agency’s clear intent (during a time of unclear goals) of hitching their Mars mission dreams to the movie’s anticipated popularity.

NASA’s manned space efforts relate not so much to current accomplishment but rather to publicizing promised future accomplishments. In the case of The Martian, the agency’s PR warp engine has slipped into hyper-drive. Leading this media charm barrage is a 19-page memo sent out to agency employees instructing them how to take advantage of the release of a new movie about Mars. Among the gems in this document are mantras to be chanted (“NASA = Mars, Mars = NASA”), sage advice (“Be a Martian”), technically true but misleading exaggerations (“NASA is at Mars”) and aspirational self-deception (“NASA is working on sending people to Mars”). But it doesn’t stop there. This top-level direction is followed by a dozen more pages of lists of PR events, movie screenings, astronaut appearances, and the invidious “talking points,” those full-metal jacketed rhetorical bullets loaded in the firearms of modern societal discourse.

Apparently, NASA believes that as this movie takes off in popularity, a public wound-up about space exploration will demand that the agency be showered with additional money. Once that happens, the Marsophiles say they will achieve their human mission to Mars fantasy sooner than the “sometime within the next 25 years” timeline currently in place. This is inline with the agency’s unsuccessful 50-year strategy of believing that in order to stay in business they must generate enthusiastic public support (apparently they are the only federal agency that has adopted this mindset). Thus, Congress and the administration have not been excluded from this PR blitz strategy, which includes a date-unspecified “White House screening” of the film. Instead of actually doing something, we can all watch the movie. It isn’t surprising that the public has become cynical about what is science and what is politics – what is real and what isn’t. “Science” has become a useful political tool and because of that, the credibility of scientific inquiry and the public’s understanding of science and how it works have suffered greatly.

Reporter Eric Berger complains that nothing in the new movie shows the presence of New Space companies, those allegedly private sector, commercial entities that are currently taking the universe by storm. Science writer Ed Regis thinks we should forget about “settling Mars” because people have unrealistic views about the hazards of such an activity. (Done Ed – nothing in NASA’s current plans leads to anything remotely resembling human settlement of another world.) The Explore Mars crowd urges everyone to “stay the course” on NASA’s humans to Mars efforts, without explaining (do they even know?) exactly why anyone should desire this course of action (a “world class” example of how politicized science has done great harm to the public’s understanding, expectations and to their education about what is possible).

NASA’s #JourneyToMars, Inspiration Mars, Mars One, and Elon Musk’s settlement fantasies all fall into the category of what I call the Mars obsession, the spaceflight idée fixe that has kept us busy with devising new architectures and composing beautiful artwork for the past 25 years, but has not advanced any actual spaceflight. Instead of focusing our efforts on an achievable, extendable goal, like building a cislunar transportation infrastructure that could carry us to the planets, we obsess on pie-in-the-sky Mars missions and Hollywood productions that whip up unrealistic expectations, yet accomplish nothing. As mission rationale, Mars advocates have nothing beyond some esoteric science questions (“Do microbes exist in seeping brines on crater walls?”) or wildly unrealistic dreams of planetary settlement (the logistical requirements of which are not even understood, let alone being addressed).

I have little doubt that unless something changes, NASA will “stay the course” they’re wedded to. Politicians, focused on other things, go along with NASA’s Mars dreams because they don’t have to pony up any additional money – they can just smile, cheer and say, “someday – soon.” Some agency employees are okay with “the mission” because they don’t have to do any real engineering – honing instead their considerable Powerpoint skills. The entertainment world likes it because they already work in the field of fiction. And space advocates? Well, they like anything that talks about future space activities – because talking is what they do best.

Going beyond LEO requires us to develop a new mindset and a new approach. We need to build an incremental spaceflight system that advances first to cislunar space, then to the Moon, and then into the Solar System beyond. It should be composed of small pieces sent into space on any available launch vehicle. It must have a flexible plan of deployment and operations, adjustable to budgetary boom and bust cycles (mostly bust for the foreseeable future). And most importantly, to create new spaceflight capabilities, we must learn how to use the vast material and energy resources of space. I advocate going to the Moon to do this because it is close and it has the resources that we need. And learning to use extraterrestrial resources is a skill that we must master if we are ever to become truly “spacefaring.”   When a program is realistic and sound, you don’t need to go begging hat in hand to the public, or face ridicule for shamelessly associating yourself with a popular science fiction space movie to suggest that you’re on the right path. When there truly is a real program, business, success and money will follow.

Enjoy The Martian but don’t take it too seriously. Remember all this hoopla next time – along with the wasted time, the wasted budget and the lack of progress.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 56 Comments

Under the Double Eagle

I have a new post up at Air & Space on an old proposed mission from the SDI days, the Double Eagle Space Experiment.  This mission was to have used active remote sensing to map the Moon’s composition with high resolution and precision.  Comment on the post, here if so inclined.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space technology | 24 Comments

Commercial Crew Cuts

Budget requests (blue) and actual funding (orange) for the CCDev program. "Cuts" in the program are reflected in the steadily increasing budget. From Wikipedia.

Budget requests (blue) and actual funding (orange) for NASA’s CCDev program. The “cuts” in the program are reflected in its steadily increasing budget with time. From Wikipedia.

The space media is in an uproar over the funding levels for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Congress has appropriated less money than the administration requested for the last five years. Has legislative parsimony held us back in our inexorable march to the stars? To read some of the press coverage, one might think so. But to gain some perspective, we should consider the origins and purpose of this program and what it has promised for what is being spent.

NASA programs to develop an independent, commercial capability to deliver both cargo and people to low Earth orbit have their origins in the strategic planning for the International Space Station (ISS) “assembly complete” era, and in the Vision for Space Exploration. One recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission was for NASA to solicit cargo delivery to orbit from the commercial sector instead of launching it on government-built and -operated vehicles. The reasoning behind this recommendation was that as travel to and from LEO had become “routine,” and as NASA was supposed to be a cutting edge entity, it was time to contract for these services, so that the agency could focus its efforts on blazing new trails and technology paths. This recommendation (one of the few actually implemented from that report) became NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program. The purpose of COTS was to invest seed money in the commercial development of this capability, after which delivery services for cargo to the ISS (the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program) would be purchased.

The COTS effort began in 2006 and resulted in the development of two different American cargo delivery services, one by Orbital (Antares) and the other from SpaceX (Dragon); both are operational (although both are currently grounded by launch vehicle failures). On the basis of this apparent success, the current administration expanded the COTS concept into the realm of human spaceflight, called the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The ostensible purpose of this effort was to provide access to and from the ISS for American crew members by funding commercial companies to develop a new human spacecraft for LEO transportation. With the cancellation of Project Constellation, the need for crew transport to and from space was indeed pressing, especially as no attempt was made to delay the scheduled retirement of the Shuttle – it went forward unabated. Thus, our working orbiters were removed from service and put on display in museums around the country. We’ve been purchasing rides to ISS from Russia since 2011.

New Space adherents, believing that their ship had finally and truly come in, hailed the new emphasis on commercial spaceflight. In their formulation, “government programs” to develop new NASA spacecraft are ponderous, bureaucratic, slow and expensive, while the “private sector” of New Space would be nimble, responsive, fast and cheap. Much of the private sector’s incentive to be nimble and cheap flows from the reality that the expenditure of private capital impacts its shareholders, yet CCDev has the federal government paying development costs, a funding line that has been in NASA’s budget continuously since the program’s inception in 2010.

But when less money was allocated to CCDev than the administration’s yearly requests, its supporters grew incensed, intensifying the friction within an already divided space community. Much of their indignation stems from the concurrent full funding of the agency’s “program of record,” the new Orion spacecraft and its launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS). In other words, because Congress chooses to expend more of the human spaceflight budget funding an established, federal human spaceflight program rather than transferring dollars to the new “private” commercial effort, they call Congress’ budgetary decisions corrupt and “pork.”

NASA claims that the selected CCDev proposals for spacecraft development are meeting their targeted incremental milestones. They further claim (through comments and letters to relevant Congressional authorities by the Administrator) that the “inadequate funding” of the program by Congress is responsible for the delays in system development and for extending the need for Americans to ride to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz. Is any of this true?

The Gemini program (1962-1966) created America’s first multi-person crew vehicle to orbit. The sum total of money spent on Gemini was about $1.3 billion (around $8.5 billion in FY2015 dollars) of which $800 million ($5.2 billion FY2015) went into the development and building of 12 flight spacecraft, and about 15 training vehicles, with the first manned launch occurring about 3 years after program initiation. The Gemini spacecraft carried two crewmen (although a later study considered development of a version that could carry up to 9 people). The spacecraft could maneuver to change its orbit and then rendezvous and dock with a target vehicle. Crew EVA was also supported and conducted on 5 of the 10 flown missions.

For the CCDev program (started in 2010), spacecraft designs were selected from three proposers for further development. Currently down-selected to two companies (Boeing and SpaceX), those contracts have met four development milestones in the past five years, but neither has produced a working spacecraft. To date, about $1.5 billion has been spent, with the two major contractors Boeing and SpaceX, getting $1.1 billion between them. Assuming that all certifications are met, manifests show the first unmanned demo missions of SpaceX’s Dragon is scheduled to launch in late 2016, and Boeing’s CST-100 in spring of 2017. The first crew delivery to ISS would be in 2017.

New Spacers claim this slow pace is the result of the Congressional under-funding, but offer no evidence that more money would significantly accelerate the schedule. Should we just marvel that the planners and builders in the 1960s got Gemini up and running in 3 years (at a point in which we had no experience whatsoever in space rendezvous and docking) and give this generation a pass? The “abundance” of money available to Gemini did not buy any schedule acceleration, although it did allow for the purchase of abundant surplus hardware. Like any spacecraft development, Gemini suffered several technical setbacks during its operational phase, including a wildly unreliable Agena target docking vehicle, early problems with fuel cell technology, and EVA difficulties that were not solved until the very last flight.

But a more pertinent issue is the whole concept behind CCDev. Allegedly, there is an enormous pent-up market demand for human transport to LEO and external “investment” or incentives are needed to kick-start, what will undoubtedly turn out to be, an economically self-sustaining industry. Yet several other attempts to do exactly this have failed to yield any positive results. Space entrepreneur Bob Bigelow set-up a prize in 2004 of $50 million for any entity that could demonstrate a capability for commercial human flight to LEO and return – that prize expired in 2010 without a single attempt to claim it. Why should the federal government pay commercial firms to build a vehicle that is desperately needed for private spaceflight? We’re told that NASA needs it for transport to the ISS. But we had working space vehicles – the Shuttle orbiters, whose retirement to museums was not halted after Constellation was arbitrarily cancelled.

The New Space paradigm isn’t faster and cheaper – although there might be some marginal differences, it’s just as slow and costly as any other approach to space. Spaceflight is hard (as the cliché goes) and attempting to accomplish feats on the very edge of technical possibility will always be difficult and costly. The “cuts” in CCDev imposed by the Congress are cuts only in the Washington sense – the actual amount of money appropriated for the program has increased each year. But there is no evidence that these “cuts” are responsible for the slow progress of the program. Commercial vendors of human spaceflight have only one customer at the moment (NASA), and as they are content to let the feds pay for their development, they are content with the current rate of progress. A test of the sincerity of their belief in the future commercial possibilities of human to LEO transport might be reflected in their willingness to back development efforts with their own money, rather than ours.

Posted in space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 20 Comments

Drones on the Moon

In a new post over at Air & Space, I consider some of the advantages and drawbacks to the possible use of robotic drones in the exploration and prospecting of the Moon.  Comment here is desired.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space technology, Space transportation | 25 Comments

To the Moon – Again

A future industrial operation on the Moon.  Possible or not? (Artwork by Pat Rawlings)

A future industrial operation on the Moon. Possible or not? (Artwork by Pat Rawlings)

A NASA-sponsored study has been released which outlines a plan to return to the Moon with people and set-up an outpost at one of the poles to mine water for propellant. This report has drawn both attention and puzzlement within the space community, as the agency continues to make clear that they have no interest in human lunar missions. This disconnect is covered because NASA will not do these activities – instead, the agency will pay commercial companies to develop and implement the plan. The propellant produced at the outpost from lunar polar water will then be sold to NASA for use in future human missions to Mars.

I find both positive and negative aspects in this report. I am gratified that another study recognizes the great leveraging power for spaceflight offered by the development of lunar resources. Most NASA lunar mission studies have invariably incorporated resource utilization only in the form of small-scale demonstrations or flight experiments. In contrast, this effort makes the production of water from the Moon’s polar deposits the principal mission objective – a definite step forward. The architecture also makes significant use of robotic machines on the Moon for most of the mining and processing activities, another positive development. Because of the Moon’s proximity, controlling robots on the lunar surface in near real time permits the early establishment of processing facilities using operators on Earth, rather than on the Moon. In these ways, I find a lot of similarity with this plan and the architecture designed in 2011 by Tony Lavoie and myself.

On the other hand, there are some strange aspects to the report that warrant attention. Early stages of the program call for human crews to be sent on equatorial surface sortie missions prior to the establishment of the polar outpost. Presumably, these missions will test and prove the equipment and vehicles needed for routine lunar surface access later. But sortie missions to equatorial or mid-latitude sites offer no real benefit to the ultimate aim of the architecture: the establishment of propellant production facilities at the pole. There is no good reason for not sending the first human missions directly to the locations where our future activities will happen. There is also no rush to do so – much can be accomplished in advance of human arrival with robotic machines under the control of operators on Earth.

The architecture calls for a series of robotic missions to reconnoiter, prospect and survey potential mining sites prior to human arrival. This approach is an absolute necessity, as much is still unknown about the nature and composition of the polar ice deposits. Apparently, there has been little to no scientific input to this report regarding the consideration of actual prospecting and mining activities, a significant shortcoming. Although the study acknowledges that the unknowns of polar ice mining constitute a “major risk” to the program, that risk can be at least partly mitigated now through the incorporation of results from current research. Known facts are misstated (e.g., water concentrations) and unattributed, a general shortcoming of this effort. It is critical to demonstrate ISRU (in situ resource utilization) with robotic precursors prior to outpost commitment, but the report does not indicate what levels of production constitute success or failure of this milestone. Insufficient detail for the robotic missions likely indicates that these aspects have not been designed or imagined, e.g., the need of power and communications for polar robotic spacecraft requires a significant supporting infrastructure that is not described.

The principal object of the lunar outpost in this plan is the production of water to be converted into cryogenic hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket propellant. The report envisions this lunar propellant (about 200 metric tons per year at the end of outpost emplacement) as enabling human missions to Mars by reducing the total number of required SLS heavy lift vehicle launches required for such a mission from 12 to 3. But the study does not mention an even more tangible, practical benefit – that the availability of lunar produced propellant not only enables human missions to Mars, it creates routine access to the entirety of cislunar space. We could visit all of the locations of cislunar space (e.g., GEO, L-points) with people and machines to emplace, construct and maintain new satellites of potentially enormous power and capability. A fleet of space-based flight assets in cislunar space, provisioned by the products and propellant produced on the Moon, constitutes a transportation system that can serve nearly all of our space needs for the next century.

The cost analysis of this architecture has drawn much attention. Indeed, more print space is expended on the allegedly low total cost of the project (23 pages) than on the technical aspects of establishing a lunar presence (20 pages). The remainder of the 100-page report deals with risk management and organizational structures. The report claims that by using their approach, the establishment of the polar outpost would cost $40 billion, plus or minus 30%. At first glance, this estimate seems exceedingly low, but it is comparable within about a factor of two to the cost analysis numbers run for the Spudis-Lavoie predominantly robotic architecture (our cost total is $88 billion, of which 30% is reserve). Where do their low cost estimates come from? Primarily from the assumption, widely held in the New Space community, that a COTS-like model of implementation will produce cost savings of factors of eight to ten.

In their model, NASA simply provides the money and industry designs, develops and performs the missions and program. This architecture critically relies on SpaceX’s “Falcon Heavy” for the delivery of propellant to LEO – a vehicle that has yet to materialize, even in structural mock-up form. The Falcon Heavy design consists of three Falcon 9 vehicles, constituting a total of 27 engines, strapped together and using cross-feeds for fuel. In concept, it is similar to the old Soviet N-1 rocket, which used 30 engines; that vehicle was launched four times and never successfully. Even if Falcon Heavy works as advertised, we have no idea what its ultimate cost per flight might be. Its 53 metric ton to LEO payload capacity has no obvious commercial customer; satellite manufacturers design their spacecraft to fit on Atlas or Delta expendables (with a mass limit of about 30 metric tons), so the excess lift capacity either goes to waste or must be sold to co-riders. I frankly find the quoted cost of $90 million per flight of Falcon Heavy unbelievable, especially as the vehicle has not yet flown.

But the new plan willingly accepts this advertised sticker price, largely on the ideological belief in the New Space trope that it can do more in space with less money. The NASA program to deliver cargo to the ISS using commercial launch providers is cited as an example of the benefits of the new business model. In fact, we arguably spend more money now for payload delivered to ISS on the Dragon (about $9,500 per kg) than when Shuttle was operational (cost usually quoted as between $5,000-$10,000 per kg). All equipment, assets and operations remain the property and responsibility of the lunar “development authority,” an entity established by the plan consisting of a consortium of private companies and international agencies to accomplish the mission. So American (and possibly other nations’) taxpayers pay for a lunar outpost, but they don’t own any of it. And when it eventually does come time for a human Mars mission, NASA will pay for the lunar-produced propellant, even though they would have already paid to develop the system that acquires and delivers it.

Which brings me to a final (possibly critical) aspect of this plan. One reason I favor the federal government leading a return to the Moon is that it establishes our national, collective rights to use the Moon and cislunar space for a wide variety of purposes, including all of our economic, scientific and security needs. In possible future disputes with the space efforts of other nation states (such as China), it is not clear that this “development authority” will possess the stature or the assets to prevail. Nations can and do go head-to-head, but when nations go against corporations (for- or not-for profit), corporations seldom come out on top.

The development of the Moon and cislunar space is critical to national strategic needs – it is not some carnival sideshow that we should relegate to a second-tier space program. While I applaud this effort as a contribution to the technical literature of lunar return, I have serious doubts that the plan as presented will work. New Space has a long history of talking big and promising bigger, but their follow-through and delivery has been more run of the mill. Undertaking a major, innovative space program is beyond their capabilities now and may remain so for the foreseeable future.

Still, setting aside concerns over this plan’s feasibility, the glaring issue of our weakened national space posture remains. The traditional role of government is to represent us collectively and to protect our national interests. A lunar development authority would possess neither those ethics nor the means to do anything about them. We are not the only ones interested in the Moon and cislunar space, and it is still a dangerous world. The federal government, of which NASA is a part, should take steps to assure national rights of access and activity in cislunar space and the Moon. It should be noted that in the section of the report listing the “pros” and “cons” of a development authority, these critical national priorities are not even considered.

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