American Space Program Reflects Standing in the World

Astronaut Jack Schmitt and flag on the Moon, 1972.  Once unquestioned, now questionable.

Astronaut Jack Schmitt and flag on the Moon, 1972. Once our dominance of space was unquestioned.  Now, it is questionable.

Graphic international news reports are testament to the fact that the world is an unstable and dangerous place. Because of Russian aggression and intransigence toward Ukraine, the state of relations between the United States and Russia continues to deteriorate. Half a world away in the East China Sea, a game of strategic cat-and-mouse is played where Chinese fighter planes buzz American surveillance flights in international waters and the Chinese navy throws its weight around in confrontations on the open ocean, including harassment of off-shore oil operations owned by Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations. American influence and reliability is increasingly doubted, mocked and challenged around the world. Relinquishing leadership has emboldened our enemies and worried our allies, forcing many countries to look to those projecting strength and resolve for their security. Because the U.S. has assumed a posture of withdrawal, we have created the power vacuum that is destabilizing the world.

These ongoing events place the current state of the American space program in stark relief. We continue to be dependent upon Russia for crew transport to and from the International Space Station (ISS). A former NASA Administrator, who is not alone in his assessment, characterized this dependency as being “held hostage.” While we do have the ability to supply the ISS with procured cargo flights from American contractors, they have delivered only a fraction of their promised mass, leaving the vast bulk of ISS re-supply the domain of the Russian Progress (unmanned Soyuz) spacecraft. China has shown their resolve to dominate cislunar space. They are actively pursuing a program of missions to the Moon. The Chinese have demonstrated their ability to fly anywhere throughout cislunar space and to rendezvous, loiter and encounter other satellite assets on station or en route to other destinations.

Our international space partners were blindsided by America’s unilateral decision to abandon the Moon – an agreed to destination and goal upon which they had been working. Meanwhile, our space agency continues to promote a stunt human mission to a “lassoed” asteroid, an idea nearly universally panned. And contrary to the realities of budget and capability, NASA continues to regale the nation with endless “happy talk” about eventual human missions to Mars, a goal that is well beyond the time horizon of any reasonable projection.

Why has it come to this? One might argue that the current strategic confusion about goals and destinations is merely a continuation of the ongoing struggle of human spaceflight to find a long-term, sustainable rationale after the end of the Apollo program. But this calculus would misread the past thirty years of space history. There has never been any doubt about the logical path beyond low Earth orbit for humans – it leads incrementally to high orbits in cislunar space, to the Moon and then to the planets beyond. Yes, it is physically possible to skip one or more of those steps (as Apollo demonstrated) but those detours lead to architectural shortcuts that, while perhaps necessary to meet short-term political considerations, do not lead to or drive long-term, sustainable human presence in space.

Many chalk up the current state of upheaval as the inevitable consequence of the end of Apollo, but we cannot remain in this spin cycle if we ever plan to move forward with a workable strategy. A current debate in space circles is not where to go, or what to do, but rather, how to do it.   Issues dividing the space community – the arguments keeping us stuck in low Earth orbit, focus mainly on means rather than ends, and rockets rather than destinations. Such debate reflects a paucity of national leadership and the natural movement by others to fill the vacuum left by this strategic confusion.

Human spaceflight beyond LEO can be pursued through one of two means – a large, fully fueled vehicle can be launched directly from Earth (requiring the development of a heavy lift rocket) or a trans-LEO spacecraft can be launched as smaller pieces and built and fueled in space. The Apollo architecture used a heavy lift vehicle (Saturn V) to conduct a lunar landing mission with a single launch. This development accelerated the schedule by avoiding the need to construct a large infrastructure in Earth orbit to support a lunar mission. Thus, we fulfilled President Kennedy’s challenge and won the Moon race in less than a decade but left no lasting legacy infrastructure in space. An alternative approach would have been to incrementally build systems and emplace assets at increasing distances from Earth, including way stations, assembly points and fueling depots. Such a system is more complex and takes longer to build, but it creates permanent spaceflight infrastructure that would allow us to make repeated trips to the Moon and elsewhere. The success of Apollo has made it difficult to wrap our heads around going back to square one and building a space faring system in a permanent, sustainable way.

The new heavy lift launch vehicle (the SLS system) came about not as a result of a carefully thought-out strategy for space exploration but through an act of Congress who, faced with agency intransigence, acted to save a vital U.S. capability. The SLS launch vehicle currently being built will put about 80 metric tons into LEO, less than the older Saturn V but much more than any current or envisioned alternative. A future version could put roughly the same payload mass into LEO as the Saturn V. Critics of this program argue from two perspectives – first, that the SLS system is too expensive, both as a program and (because of projected low flight rates) by individual launch. Moreover, they claim that development of the SLS keeps spaceflight as an exclusive conclave of the federal government, requiring enormous resources to keep the program going. In fact, there is nothing (except the availability of additional federal subsidies) stopping the private sector from proceeding with their own vehicle development, at whatever pace they choose.

Thus, as framed by many in the space community, we are presented with these alternatives – do we want a human spaceflight program operated largely as it has been in the past – as an Apollo Redux, run by the federal government, with large rockets sending people to Mars for flags-and-footprint missions and other entertaining space “firsts?” Or, do we want a de-centralized program run by private corporations, providing many long-term opportunities for a variety of players to do different things in space? A line has been drawn in the sand and many advocates on each side remain intransigent and vociferous.

To ensure that the U.S. retains and grows a strong space program, we need a federally run human space program that promotes decentralization as capabilities are proven to the point that the private sector can invest in it with confidence, knowing markets and profits will exist going forward. History bears out the importance and necessity of cooperation between business and government. We have vital and pressing national concerns in space and the federal government represents our collective needs and desires as a nation. The fact that we are falling behind both Russia and China in spaceflight (witnessing the reality of how that impacts others understanding of our nation’s vitality and as a force in the world) bothers some not a whit, but it should. Earthly conflicts and tensions in international relations inevitably spill over into space and any other theater in which countries compete.

Recent events demonstrate that conflict escalates when the U.S. projects impotence in international affairs. The downsizing of our military has projected weakness, raising concerns about our national security and commitments abroad. Coupled with indecision over our national and international policies, such weakness has invited aggression around the world. Likewise, our civil space program is very visibly being dismantled just as the theater of cislunar space assumes more economic and military importance globally. Cislunar is the zone of near-Earth space where all of our national security and commercial space assets are located – and currently, they have scant protection from hostile action. A strong, robust U.S. presence in cislunar space supports and protects the nation and the world through situational awareness, asset protection and power projection.

In space we’re faced with the same options as on Earth – accept our role as a world leader and protect the interests of our allies and ourselves, or shun confrontation and accept the dictates of others. Some argue that cooperation in space leads to better relations and harmony on Earth; tell that to the Ukraine and their nervous neighbors. Many applaud this disruption in American power and influence. That type of thinking is very dangerous to the peace and prosperity of the world. We must resume a leadership role – one that looks after our national interests, wherever they are found – here on Earth or out in space. Instead of drawing down and retreating, we must stop the bleeding, retain what is left, build it back up and design it for permanence. We need to stop wasting time and money toying around with stunts and too-far-in-the-future wishful thinking. Our leadership must get down to the basics of moving our economy and national interests into space. Other countries projecting power and influence are already many steps ahead and set on a clear path to cislunar dominance.

Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 23 Comments

Is Doing Something Better Than Doing Nothing?

Papa's got a brand new bag -- NASA's ARM mission.

Papa’s got a brand new bag — NASA’s ARM mission.

Ideas can come from anywhere and sometimes institutions are created with the express purpose of generating ideas from which advanced technologies, products or capabilities may eventuate. These “think-tanks” have occupied a prominent place in American history since World War II, a time when science and technology emerged as a critical part of our national intellectual infrastructure. A remarkable series of concepts were developed out of such efforts, including the transistor (Bell Labs), game theory (Rand Corp.), and the Internet (ARPA). Less well remembered are ideas that for various reasons didn’t pan out, such as the Picturephone (Bell Labs) and atomic bomb-powered spaceships (Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Institute for Advanced Studies).

The W.M. Keck Foundation privately funds the Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS). Located on the campus of the California Institute of Technology, KISS conducts “think and do studies” whose aim is to generate advanced concepts for space missions in order to revolutionize our approach to and the implementation of spaceflight. They hold workshops on a variety of study efforts, ranging from sweeping strategies for space exploration to the outline of specific mission concepts. Workshops are conducted by Caltech and JPL staff members, with a smattering of outside invitees included to give the patina of soliciting a broad range of ideas. Interestingly, two concepts coming out of Keck workshops drew the sudden attention of the keepers of our national space program: the human Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) and the robotic Lunar Flashlight mission. Since these concepts were unveiled, the spaceflight community has been in turn bemused, amused and outraged. How does an idea (sometimes of multi-billion dollar scope) developed by a small group, with minimal input from the community at large, suddenly emerge as a national program? In the case of the ARM, it was a think-tank idea that fortuitously appeared at the right time.

In April of 2010, President Obama gave a speech on space policy at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In it, the President denigrated the idea of the United States returning to the lunar surface, advocating instead a human mission to an asteroid – allegedly as an interim deep-space step towards a human mission to Mars. It was quickly apparent that technical experts had not vetted this new policy idea and that its potential benefits (such as they are) were poorly articulated by the administration. Topping things off, no suitable near-Earth asteroid target – one that satisfied the various spacecraft, flight duration, abort and launch energy constraints – could be identified.

This was a serious embarrassment – a major re-vectoring of the human spaceflight program had been carried out by executive fiat with no suitable target destination identified (all dressed up and no place to go). Enter the Keck Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Since we cannot find a suitable asteroid to journey out to, it proposed hauling an asteroid back into lunar orbit and then going there to examine it. Never mind that the very idea largely negates the alleged principal advantage of an asteroid mission as a Mars precursor – to check out long-duration, deep spaceflight systems and procedures. Of course, one could accomplish such technology validation in cislunar space and on the Moon, but that uncomfortable fact would fly in the face of the President’s claim that there’s no national need to go back to the Moon because “We’ve been there.”

As far as scientific return goes, retrieval of an asteroid to lunar orbit does not advance the science of small Solar System objects one whit. We already have abundant samples of near-Earth objects in the form of meteorites, and we’ve conducted, or will soon conduct, extensive exploration of asteroids by a variety of robotic flybys, orbiters, landers and samplers.

To counter the growing chorus sharply criticizing the asteroid mission, and to obscure the many questionable judgments on display in the President’s 2010 KSC space speech, the ARM concept was eagerly seized upon by the agency. As a rationale for a strategic change in the national space direction, ARM is pretty thin gruel. Despite their best efforts to put lipstick on this pig, ARM continues to come in for criticism from a variety of directions, including former NASA management, space advocates, and the scientific community. In fact, about the only people strongly supporting the ARM are its original Keck workshop advocates.

A new robotic mission called Lunar Flashlight is another Keck workshop idea. This micro-sat mission concept involves sending a small package of cubesats (miniaturized spacecraft packaged as 10-cm cubes), along with a large solar sail, into lunar orbit. To look for evidence of hydrated material, the solar sail will attempt to reflect sunlight into the permanently dark areas near the poles in a bid to obtain near-infrared spectra of the soils in these craters.

Multiple scientific and technical issues can be identified with this mission concept. It is not clear that enough sunlight can be reflected into the permanently dark areas near the Moon’s poles to illuminate the soil and obtain good spectra from Lunar Flashlight. But more importantly, we already know from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) laser altimetry that bright surface deposits occur in polar dark areas and that clear evidence of water frost is seen in UV imaging of some dark regions (although not in others). One of the biggest drawbacks to Lunar Flashlight is that a variety of evidence (including neutron spectroscopy and radar) suggests that much of the polar water on the Moon is found at depths of a few cm to tens of cm below the surface, thus rendering images of the surface spectra largely irrelevant to a quantitative inventory of polar volatiles.

In any event, Lunar Flashlight is a possible future robotic mission, probably because it is cheap (although no cost data have been provided as yet). The spacecraft launches as a secondary payload, hitchhiking a ride to GEO transfer orbit, whence it flies itself to the Moon. Lunar Flashlight is not the only possible lunar ice-detection mission considered in the Keck study, but reading through the workshop presentations illustrates a dearth of imagination. For example, the use of penetrators to obtain sub-surface polar information is discussed, but not hard-landing surface probes, cushioned by crushable enclosures. This may seem to be a “way out” idea in its own right, but this type of probe was built to fly to the Moon in the 1960s as a deployable part of the hard-landing Ranger spacecraft.

Given their influence on American space policy to date, one shudders to imagine what other ideas might arise from future Keck workshops – skywriting in orbit and hamsters to Jupiter are all in play. The space program is trapped in an irretrievable death spiral, where foolish ideas are pitched and adopted, then discarded as their public relations value declines once the concept is critically scrutinized. With each of these episodes, our nation and national space program lag further behind and lose more credibility. Instead of designing a technically credible space program that extends our reach into space, we are regaled with an endless parade of proposals for silly stunts. In regard to human spaceflight, we sometimes hear that “doing something” is better than “doing nothing.” Doing nothing might be a better option when the “something” being proposed is patently absurd. A static program might alert the public to what has been happening to our national space program.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 52 Comments

Moon First – Mine the Asteroids Later

I have a new post up at Air & Space on mining asteroids for water and platinum.  This piece extends some of the arguments I have made previously in my three-part series on lunar versus asteroid missions:

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 21 Comments

Buzz Moons Lunar Return

"So, this is a model of our future asteroid destination?"  "No, Mr. President -- this IS our destination!"

“So, this is a model of our future asteroid destination?” “No, Mr. President — this IS our destination!”

On the occasion of the 45th anniversary of the first manned lunar landing, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin has laid out his case for the immediate adoption of a new national goal in space – a human mission to Mars. Though such is (allegedly) already our national “horizon” goal for human spaceflight, I do take his meaning – that he is dissatisfied with the current progress along this strategic path and suspects (rightly, in my opinion) that we are not really serious about Mars as our space goal.

In his piece for Time magazine, Buzz outlines and answers several questions he feels that, we as a nation, must answer. He invites the reader to consider their own responses to his hypothetical questions. I accept his invitation and provide here my answers.

1. Does the United States wish to continue leading human exploration of space or leave it to Russia, China, India or some other nation to take over?

This is actually a very good question. Buzz answers emphatically “Yes!” but public feeling about space is largely one of indifference. The erosion of American space leadership has been gradual enough such that most people (who think very little about space policy) have not even noticed it. When they do notice, they tend to shrug their shoulders. But this question does not really refer to opinions held by the public at large, but rather to the decision-makers within the American political system. Looked at from that perspective, the answer to the question is clearly “No,” in that there is a general refusal to support a unified, long-term strategic direction in space (either in terms of goals or funding). True enough, some politicians are very supportive of civil space, having worked hard in their attempt to set the program on a sustainable track. But they are as much a minority within their sub-group as space buffs are within the general populace.

2. Does it not make good sense for the U.S. to take the high ground by establishing cooperative U.S.-China relations in space?

It does not, at least not at this stage in our relations with them. Buzz makes an analogy to the alleged benefits of Apollo-Soyuz. However, that program (which only consisted of one mission) was largely a public relations stunt, designed to defuse immediate geopolitical tensions and did not lead to any significant cooperation or follow-on work in space (the agreement to build ISS together came 20 years later, after the fall of the USSR). Moreover, as the then-recent winners of the Moon race with the Soviets, America came to Apollo-Soyuz from a position of strength and could afford to be generous. The Chinese space program is run by their military and has already conducted several missions of a decidedly menacing character. I do not object to cooperation with the Chinese, but only after we have developed an independent cislunar capability, comparable to the one China is currently developing.

3. Does it make sense for the U.S. to expend hundreds of billions of dollars to mount a new Apollo-style program to return to the moon?

No and no one is advocating this! Even more pertinent, why make this argument now, as the current administration terminated our return to the Moon four years ago? Still, it’s the oft-repeated straw man argument when space missions, money and motives are debated. As I have detailed many times, the true purpose of the VSE was to return to the Moon with the goal of learning how to live and work there for increasingly extended periods of time. Key to the VSE architecture was the development of our ability to extract the material and energy resources of the Moon (and space in general) – simply, to learn how to use what we find in space in order to live, work and travel in space. This has never been done by any nation or entity; acquiring this skill-set is essential to becoming space faring – possessing the ability to provision ourselves off-planet, unchained from the tyranny of the rocket equation.

4. And shouldn’t the U.S. develop the technological capabilities needed to land humans on Mars by first traveling to a nearby asteroid for research and development purposes?

This assertion is placed in the sequence so as to appear to be a logical conclusion from the previous question, but in actual fact is a complete non-sequitur. Buzz makes no clear case that a human asteroid mission contributes in any way to a human Mars mission, except to the extent that both are beyond the orbit of the Moon. Long-duration spaceflight, closed-loop life support, fault-tolerant systems are all needed for Mars missions, but those goals are being pursued (and developed) today using the International Space Station and other near-Earth space missions. Asteroid missions do nothing to develop planetary surface systems – such as landers and surface rovers (both of which could be developed by human presence on the Moon). Most critically, human asteroid missions essentially do nothing to help us learn how to extract and use planetary resources. Asteroids contain water at low concentrations, but for reachable near-Earth asteroids, that water is chemically bound in mineral structures, thus processing is very different from the harvesting and use of water ice (the preferred method of extracting water on both the Moon and on Mars). Finally, the biggest technical challenge to a human Mars mission (one that is currently unsolved) is the Entry-Descent-Landing (EDL) problem. In short, we cannot land massive payloads on Mars with the proven methods used by the robotic Mars landers to date. This is a problem that must be solved; one can argue that lunar return will not solve it but most certainly, neither does a mission to an asteroid.

5. And speaking of Mars, are we prepared as a nation to take the necessary steps to explore Mars with the eventual goal of establishing a manned settlement on that planet?

Here is Buzz’s rhetorical “trump card,” a question to which we all are expected to shout, “Yes!” then march on Capitol Hill demanding that the federal money spigot be opened in order to build colonies on Mars. This is a deeply held conviction of many in the Mars advocacy community. Yet, within Buzz’s column (and the recent NRC report on Human Spaceflight), one will search in vain for any reason why. Lip service is paid to a Quest-for-Life motivation and for an understanding of our planetary origins, but beyond that, there is no justification as to why Mars is our “ultimate goal,” except to the extent that it always has been.

As far as the idea of settlement goes, I am unaware of any previous federal government program that has settled anything (historically, the federal government has taken action to ensure that a region is NOT settled). Government can enable settlement through incentives and guarantees of security. But if space is ever settled, it will likely be done by entities for reasons largely unknown to us today. There is simply no compelling need for the national government to “settle space.” That said, the government could undertake a scientific and engineering research program to understand how humans could access and remain at distant localities in space for increasing periods of time, including the use of off-planet resources. Such a space program could create the capability to build large structures in space, such as distributed aperture communications and observation systems or solar power satellites to develop a clean and efficient global system of energy distribution. A space program of this type would both challenge and reward – returning value on the investment. Such a program could naturally lead to the eventual “settlement” of space, and thereby bring space development into our economic sphere.

There seems to be a notion that somehow, the new emphasis on “private” spaceflight will take up the slack for a faltering and fading federal space program. The recent piece in The Daily Caller by Andrew Follett is full of misstatements and inaccuracies, including the notion that somehow SpaceX has provided multiples of space capability for a fraction of NASA’s cost. Andrew seems to be unaware that a single Shuttle launch could carry 18,600 kg up to the ISS, more than five and a half times the capacity of the SpaceX Dragon (3300 kg), so its actual cost per pound to orbit is lower than the Falcon 9, not higher. Moreover, even SpaceX itself (via its Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell) is advocating for more NASA funding. Despite their hype about Mars colonization, SpaceX has yet to launch a human into space nor have they sent a payload beyond geosynchronous orbit. Follett repeats the fallacy that we are in a better technological position to go to Mars now than we were 50 years ago to go to the Moon, again fundamentally misunderstanding both the current engineering state-of-the-art, national security and the political climate of the nation. A realistic, sustainable strategic approach (along with fewer, pie-in-the-sky New Space “commercials”) will be necessary if our space program is to survive.

The questions Buzz proposes are useful in framing the terms of our national debate on the goals and paths of our civil space program. It’s just that my answers to his questions are very different from the ones he draws. Buzz Aldrin has been to the Moon but, as he notes, he is now in his 8th decade. That means there are two generations alive that did not experience this great American accomplishment – you had to have been alive during Apollo to understand the difference that exists between these two perspectives. In the 45 years since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew to the lunar surface, we have acquired vast amounts of new data about the Moon and its resources. We now recognize its utility – an aspect about which we knew very little when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the surface of the Moon.   By returning to Moon to build an affordable, extensible space faring system (one that moves us beyond the impasse that’s prevented us from capitalizing on the great national accomplishment of Apollo 11), we (and those who were not alive then) can celebrate the renewed journey and the experience the joy of knowing that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology | 41 Comments

New post at Air & Space: Apollo 15

A somewhat offbeat contribution on this Moon landing anniversary day.  The month of July is witness to several different space history milestones.  Over at The Once and Future Moon, I discuss how I was inspired by the Apollo 15 mission, July 1971.  Comment here, if inclined.

Also, Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle has the third of his pieces on the state of the American civil space program up today.  He spoke to me about the value of the Moon and that topic is discussed in the story.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science | 15 Comments

Ten Easy Pieces

Apollo 11 leaves for the Moon, July 16, 1969.

Apollo 11 leaves for the Moon, July 16, 1969.

This weekend (July 20, 2014) is the anniversary of the first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission. No doubt much ink will be spilt on “perspective” pieces, noting the glory days of Apollo and contrasting them (no doubt unfavorably) with the current situation in our civil space program. Rather than adding to the random noise with yet another harangue about the advent of a space doomsday, I offer the following – a selection of ten quotes from some of my previous posts here at SLR and over at Air & Space magazine.

When we went to the Moon 45 years ago, it was to demonstrate the superiority of our system over that of the Soviet Union. Additionally, we were able to conduct the first scientific reconnaissance of another world. Both of these were momentous events. What we did not know then was the true value of the Moon. The Moon has utility and therefore, value.  Recent discoveries have shown that large quantities of water exist near the poles of the Moon, near localities of near-permanent sunlight, thus providing the material and energy resources needed to create new spaceflight capabilities from what we find in space, rather than what we can lug up there with us.  The Moon is not simply an interesting destination in space; it is an enabling asset for human spaceflight.

It has been two generations since Apollo and the manned Moon landings. Forty-five years ago, the Apollo astronauts were flesh and blood heroes – their achievements inspired us all and encouraged scholastic and career excellence. The dreams of science-fiction inspired many of us to pursue careers in space. Today, we still flock to see science-fiction movies and are entertained (some would say narcotized) by special effects and computer fantasy. But do we still seek to implement our dreams? Or are we content with the fantasy?

Human Spaceflight: What Value to Science? (Pt. 1)

February 2009:  The rocks brought back from the Moon told us the story of the Solar System’s early history, details both surprising and astonishing.  It was a time when planets collided and giant asteroids blew holes in planetary crusts hundreds to thousands of kilometers across.  The outer part of the Moon completely melted, forming a global ocean of liquid rock.  Our ideas about planetary formation and evolution had to be re-written from scratch after Apollo. What does this have to do with human exploration?  Because people went to the Moon, we now have a completely different view of how life has evolved on Earth.  That’s a bold assertion, but I believe it to be true.

Human Spaceflight: What Value to Science? (Part 2)

March 2009: A robotic rover can be designed to collect a sample, but it cannot be designed to collect the correct sample.  Field work involves posing and answering conceptual questions in real time, when emerging models and ideas can be tested in the field.  It is a complex and iterative process; we sometimes spend years at certain field sites on the Earth, asking and answering different and ever more detailed scientific questions.  Our objective in the geological exploration of the Moon is knowledge and understanding.  A rock is just a rock, a piece of data.  It is not knowledge.  Robots collect data, not knowledge.

Stuck in Transit – Unchaining Ourselves From the Rocket Equation

March 2010:  We can wait and hope for the proposed technology development program to provide us with magic beans, or we can begin that process now by returning to the Moon with robots and humans to learn how to harvest and use its material and energy resources.  Creating a sustainable system of space faring that can take us anywhere we want to go would be a real accomplishment.  By gaining this knowledge and expertise, mankind will be free to choose many space goals, thereby achieving “at will” space destination capability.

Can we afford to return to the Moon?

December 2010: Rather than shut up, I now put up.  I have submitted a paper for publication in the Proceedings of Space Manufacturing 14, the conference in late October sponsored by the Space Studies Institute.  My co-author Tony Lavoie and I have developed an architecture that returns America to the Moon with a specific mission in an affordable way.

From “One Small Step” to Settlement

Apollo 11 CDR Neil Armstrong, immediately after his historic Moonwalk.

Apollo 11 CDR Neil Armstrong, immediately after his historic Moonwalk.

June 2011: Settlement is a valid long-term goal for humanity in space – but we must have something with a practical and political payoff in the near-term.

Technical Readiness

November 2012: In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man.

“Where, Why and How?” – Concerns of the House Subcommittee on Space

May 2013:  I used my opportunity before the committee to submit a detailed architecture for building an incremental, cumulative space transportation system (see the links at end of my submitted testimony here).  While we should not make a fetish of reusability, to create a lasting system (one that serves our diverse national needs in space), we need to adopt the ethic of a space “fleet” whereby ships operate in one locality in space and only there.  One size does not fit all.  Different functions require different kinds of ships and one might change vehicles several times in the course of a journey.  In other words, we should begin to move from an Earth-based and dependent transportation system to a space-based and provisioned one. Harvesting lunar water is key to this development.

Mining the Moon, Fueling the Future

December 2013:  The real value of extraterrestrial mining is accessing material outside of Earth’s gravity well and making products that enable and create new capabilities in space and on other worlds.  So far, we have not found any deposits of unknown materials in space that cannot be found on Earth (the “unobtainium” beloved of science fiction writers).  But we have found deposits of common materials that, while having no economic value for return to Earth, have enormous value in space.  Anything that we can find and use on another world means that much less material that has to be launched from the surface of the Earth.  With launch costs of many thousands of dollars per pound, every bit of mass that we can find and use in space is that much less budget-busting dumb mass hauled up from Earth.

Lunar Forensic Files: Studying Life’s Processes and Origins on the Moon

February 2014: As we continue to study the Moon, we find that it offers much more than one might suspect at first glance.  The Moon’s early history reveals the secrets of planetary assembly, impact bombardment, global melting and differentiation into core, mantle and crust.  Its middle history tells us about the thermal evolution of planets, as internal heat spawned the volcanism that resurfaced part of the Moon and operates on all of the terrestrial planets.  The continued impact history recorded in the Moon’s surface layer documents a phase of Earth history missing from our terrestrial geological record, including the possibility of episodic waves of impacts that are at least partly responsible for extinctions of life recorded in the fossil record.  This same surficial layer also records the history and output of our Sun, the provider of energy to the planets and the principal driver of climate change on Earth.  The interconnections between the various branches of lunar science with the other sciences grow more evident and more significant over time.

Surrendering in Space

March 2014:  NASA missions have blazed the trail to future theaters of operation; these are national concerns vital to defense needs and they have been a well-understood driver of our technical and economic vitality.  The value of space assets – communications satellites, GPS, reconnaissance and remote sensing and detection – were all developed in tandem by both military and civil space, with such intertwining that it is impossible to separate the two.  The space theater of the future is cislunar space, where most of our satellite assets (critical to military action and economic stability on the Earth) reside.  Such satellites are extremely vulnerable and the fact that we currently lack a means to protect and routinely and repeatedly access them is a national security concern of major significance.  That this concern was not touched on during the program was striking.  It is not enough to know that space is symbolic of our national mood.  The nation must also understand that there are concrete negative implications if we retreat in our pursuit of space leadership.  Those who are not space powerful are space vulnerable.

Posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 29 Comments

Why We’re Not Going To Mars

Production line of B-24 Liberator bombers, part of an enormous industrial infrastructure that won World War II, the Cold War, and later, sent America to the Moon.

Production line of B-24 Liberator bombers, part of an enormous industrial infrastructure that won World War II, the Cold War, and later, sent America to the Moon.

In our never ending debate over the direction of U.S. space policy, you’ve no doubt heard the claim that for a human mission to Mars, we have more technology available to us than President Kennedy had available to him when he declared the Apollo Moon landing goal in 1961. Those making this assertion are likely referring to the oft-mentioned “information revolution,” whereby the computing power that guided Apollo to the Moon can fit inside a thimble, rather than the large, suitcase-sized boxes that the old system required. But computers and avionics, while essential, hardly make up a complete and operational spaceflight capability.

How was it possible that within the span of only a few years, a country that had not yet been able to send a man into orbit was able to land two men on the Moon? For over 50 years, space advocates have been talking about sending people to Mars. Yet projected launch dates for the first voyage continually recede into the dim future, currently estimated as occurring in the mid-to-late 2030s at best, but more likely after 2050 in more candid assessments. What has happened to us as a nation that would cause this huge disparity? Could it be we are not as technically literate and advanced as we believe we are? Have we ridden too long on the Apollo wave of excellence? We appear stranded – left behind, dreaming and talking of space but not conquering it.

The success of Apollo can be attributed to many factors, but one aspect often overlooked is that Apollo was a program of the Cold War – a successor to World War II, the greatest marshaling of national will and capability in human history. Several recent books have examined the role of industry and the technical infrastructure developed and used to win the Second World War – how the latent industrial power of America was harnessed and unleashed against the war machines of both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese. The massive production capability of American industry supplied an abundance of matériel to our armed forces. In the roughly 1300 days of America’s participation in World War II, the United States produced over 100,000 tanks, almost 200,000 fighter and heavy bomber aircraft, 160 aircraft carriers, 350 destroyers, and over 200 submarines. Whatever setbacks we received on the battlefields of the world, it was not for a lack of tools (nor the will) with which to fight.

This enormous American manufacturing capacity was complemented by a concerted effort to use our abundant scientific and engineering talent pool to aid the war effort. The contributions of science and engineering were numerous, ranging from proximity fuses, to radar, to the ultimate scientific/engineering achievement of the war, the atomic bomb. These efforts not only created “wonder weapons” to serve the fight for freedom, they also produced a trained and dedicated work force – a group of people willing to endure long, hard, anonymous hours of work using their maximum (and considerable) brainpower to solve nearly intractable problems.

This marshaled capability could have dissipated into nothing at the end of the war but it didn’t because the people and facilities that defeated the Axis and restored peace to the world were necessary to contain the ambitions of a new and rapacious superpower – the aggressive and expansionist Soviet Union. This was the Cold War, a long period of world tension. Rather than putting an emphasis on the production of matériel, this war required an even greater intellectual effort and more brainpower than the just-concluded “War to End All Wars.” In a real sense, the Cold War was a “technician’s struggle,” with East and West continually engaged in a global contest of technical achievement and one-upsmanship, all with the aim of attaining a military edge over their opponent to advance and secure their nation’s position in the world. The space program was an outgrowth of this mindset and struggle.

With the advent of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), it was clear that launches into space were now possible and that the battle of ideas and ideals would inevitably spill into the heavens. The Space Race became another battleground in the relatively bloodless, ideological Cold War struggle. Each new space accomplishment was heralded not only as an achievement in its own right, but also as an example of the superiority of a politico-economic system. When President John F. Kennedy advocated the landing of a man on the Moon “by the end of the decade,” he was throwing down the gauntlet of challenge to the Soviet Union: We will do this – are you able to?

In doing so, Kennedy was able to draw on the enormous scientific and technical infrastructure built up over the course of a twenty-year Cold War (itself a legacy of the previous capacity used to win World War II). This infrastructure was much more than factories, laboratories and advanced machinery – it was powered by Americans who possessed the culture and character needed to make it all work as a unified whole. The generation that fought and won the Cold War was largely the same one that fought and won the Second World War – those men and women shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression, who sacrificed for their families and for their country. They were willing to work the long, hard hours beyond a daily punch-in to complete whatever job had to be done (and done correctly) to keep and protect a nation and a way of life. In short, it was the so-called “Greatest Generation” – those who fought back tyranny and won, who took us to the Moon.

Over time, people and ideas pass away and memories fade. After the fall of the USSR, the enormous technical infrastructure that won this triumph was allowed to atrophy and dissipate. I have always thought that the 1989 declaration of the Human Space Initiative (later re-named the Space Exploration Initiative – SEI) of President George H.W. Bush (a WWII veteran) was our leadership’s recognition of the danger of letting this capability lapse and thus, coupled it to a suitable challenge for America’s scientific and engineering community (one that would keep sharp our capacity to fight some future technocratic war or struggle – a sentiment and truth we should always reflect upon). Historically, exploration is an activity used to keep a country’s military engaged during long periods of relative peace (e.g., The H.M.S. Challenger’s oceanographic survey in the latter part of the 19th Century). In this sense, President Bush believed a challenging goal in space would serve to maintain this critical national capability, a capability bought and paid-for with decades of blood and treasure.

However, SEI was not supported by the Congress and the technological infrastructure that won the Cold War evaporated. Numerous small, high-tech companies that supported military and space needs in previous decades were allowed to fold or were absorbed by mega-conglomerates. The contraction was not only permitted to occur, but was actually encouraged by ideological opponents of the “military-industrial complex,” the allegedly evil coalescence of the high-tech, federal contractor firms that helped to win the Cold War. The so-called “boom” of high-tech in the late 1990s was largely consumer-oriented and did not produce the needed pieces of a space faring capability.

So, here we find ourselves in the new millennium. Are we “more technically advanced” than when JFK annunciated the goal of a lunar landing within a decade? I think not. Not only has our enormous and varied technical industrial capacity vanished, its engine – the people who made it all work – are gone (laid off, retired or dead). Too many of the current generation lack an understanding of history. They are not motivated by an understanding and belief in American exceptionalism – the foundation that animated past generations to greatness. They have not learned (or have not been taught, so do not possess) the ethic of self-sacrifice of their parents and grandparents – those tough, smart generations that defeated the Nazis, brought down the Soviets, and built a technically advanced American civilization, wealthy – and generous – almost beyond imagination. That nation has been slowly receding into the mists of history, leaving behind but a shell of what it once was and what it was capable of doing.

This is not the same country that sent people to the Moon in less than a decade. We have become a generation of self-absorbed takers, vegetating on and destroying the accumulated wealth and accomplishment of our formerly great nation. We spin fantasy when we talk about going to Mars. We’re not going to Mars – or anywhere else in space – until we are willing to sacrifice, roll up our sleeves and begin working to rebuild what we once had. Until then, our future in space will remain limited to Powerpoint presentations and recollections of what the Greatest Generation was able to achieve.

Note:  I was a guest on The Space Show this week, discussing this topic and also the new NRC report, the subject of my last blog post.  You can listen to the podcast from this link.

Posted in planetary exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology | 33 Comments

The NRC Report – A Missed Opportunity

Assembly in space - a role for humans unrecognized by the NRC report.

Assembly in space – a role for humans unrecognized by the NRC report.

The recent report from the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Human Space Exploration has drawn a good deal of commentary from the space press. I’ve looked over the report and have my own thoughts, some quite orthogonal to most of the commentary so far. I find the report acceptable in some areas but woefully lacking in vision and imagination. Many standard assumptions and clichés about human spaceflight are taken for granted and very little thinking “outside the box” is evident. All in all, the report is a conventional, mediocre effort. But given how far strategic thinking about the U.S. space program has fallen, I am not surprised.

In common with virtually all current thinking on the space program, the report focuses on “exploration” as the principal activity to be undertaken by humans in space, defined by the committee as consisting of surface activities associated with various scientific investigations. Thus, at the outset, the entire human effort in space is oriented around activities that, from evidence of the last 30 years, are already known to be politically unsustainable over decadal timescales. That the adoption of this viewpoint was not inadvertent is shown by the complete absence of any consideration of the value of human spaceflight for operational and applications purposes, viz., the industrial development of space for a variety of critical national needs.

The history of human spaceflight since Apollo has focused on low Earth orbit – specifically, on the use of the Space Shuttle to conduct a variety of missions, including the assembly of the International Space Station. Many observers have criticized this era of spaceflight, especially in comparison with the great surface explorations of the latter Apollo missions. However, the past 30 years of space operations began as an attempt to make spaceflight “routine” by keeping costs down. The Shuttle was built because it was thought that reusability and high flight rates would make orbital flight cheap enough to enable a wide variety of activities in space. The Shuttle has an excellent operational record of 133 successful flights out of 135 attempts but as a spaceflight system, it never achieved the savings or flight rates initially projected.

The “policy failure” of the Shuttle (as it has been labeled by one observer) led to several decades of navel-gazing and pining for a more ambitious space program (with an oft-repeated call for new missions “beyond low Earth orbit,” the holy grail of space policy analysts). Fed largely by Saganism and Star Trek fantasies about “seeking out new life,” mission dreams focused primarily on humans to Mars. But whatever the proposed trans-LEO destination, the principal activities envisioned always consisted of “scientific exploration,” with the architecture always some derivative of the unsustainable Apollo template – a large mega-booster rocket, a throw-away spacecraft and a small Earth return vehicle.

Although the original idea and purpose of the Shuttle program was eminently logical, we had abandoned the systematic and incremental approach to space exploration during Apollo because of pressing geopolitical needs. The post-Apollo direction was an attempt to return to that step-wise template through the sequence of Shuttle, station and orbital transfer vehicle – back to a space-based transportation system that would ferry crew and cargo between LEO and destinations beyond, including geosynchronous orbit, the L-points, and lunar orbit and surface. By returning to these necessary and prescribed steps, and phasing them in over time (so as to be affordable), we would gradually move from a predominantly Earth-centric transportation system based around launch vehicles, to a space-based system built around elements that would remain permanently stationed in space for continuous availability and reuse. Such an extensible system would gradually expand the operational reach of humans into the space beyond LEO.

During the course of our thirty-year experience with Shuttle and Station, critical questions about the value of people in this region were answered in the affirmative. People working in space together with robotic assistants could build, repair and maintain large, distributed systems in space – facilities much larger than could ever be launched from the surface of Earth. The ISS is but one example. Future large distributed systems built on-site in GEO (or elsewhere in trans-LEO space) could become the communications and solar power complexes of the future. People and machines, working in these areas, could assemble the interplanetary spacecraft that have been the dreams of space advocates for years – giving us systems much more capable and less expensive than those launched from the surface of Earth, the deepest gravity well in the inner Solar System.

Even though these concepts are well understood, there is nothing about such possibilities in the new report – no mention of attempting this spaceflight template, one that would revolutionize space-based satellite assets, offer unprecedented bandwidth and coverage for global digital communications, afford us the ability to develop inexpensive and clean energy for a rapidly industrializing third world, and provide better security from both internal and external threats for the world as a whole – hardly small potatoes. All of these possible activities involve the need to prove vital engineering and science concepts that will inspire and propel the inevitable space-based economy that would follow.

Yet the new NRC report focuses exclusively on the old Apollo template – a human Mars mission, staged completely from Earth-launched assets (for a few crew members) to study a few scientific questions on a distant planet. Although such a program is far from worthless, it lacks the multi-dimensional appeal and the political attraction of a program that has lower buy-in costs (being incremental) and wider appeal (broad-based constituencies, diverse opportunities). Basically, it is the difference between a single-shot mission “stunt” and the creation of a long-term dynamic that moves humanity into space – the dynamic that gets us there. Once we possess the ability to get there, people will have the freedom to choose from an infinite spectrum of activities and rationales.

On their web site, the committee lists the formal presentations they received as well as the ~200 white papers individually submitted by interested parties. Within this mass of material is work (from several sources) explaining the substance and importance of a series of new and significant discoveries about the Moon’s polar regions. In the last 10 years, we have found that the Moon contains large quantities of water in the form of ice deposits. Water is an important substance with a wide variety of uses. It is even more valuable when it’s naturally available where we need it. One of the most important uses for water is as rocket propellant. In his presentation, Mike Duke carefully outlined the promise and remaining unknowns associated with accessing and using this off-planet resource. In addition, several contributed white papers pointed out how the rules of spaceflight could be fundamentally and favorably altered through the harvesting and use of lunar water.

None of these new, game-changing results are acknowledged in the report. The closest the report comes to evaluating the enormous leveraging potential provided by in situ space resources is the use of martian atmosphere to manufacture fuel for the return trip back to Earth. While certainly a worthwhile effort, it is inadequate. Completing a single human mission in the distant future does not compare in significance to creating an affordable, sustainable human space exploration program in the here-and-now. In contrast, the systematic extraction of water from the Moon would provide fuel and consumables for a variety of purposes in cislunar space, including the necessary and all-important ability to take space transportation from an Earth-dependent activity and transform it into a space-based operation, finally removing the necessity (and expense and limitations) of propellant being launched from Earth. A cislunar transportation system can take us to the planets – to Mars.

One may speculate on the reasons for this paucity of imagination in the NRC report, but I suspect it is because the current generation of scientists and engineers are hidebound by conventional thinking about space, as well as having an aversion to crossing those necessary bridges of technical readiness that lead to new capabilities. They believe that a space program consists of industry building big, complex machines that get launched, used and then thrown away – and a big government check gets cashed. Instead of a permanent human presence in space, their idea is to get there, do the mission and get home. It’s what they know – the proven model that worked for Apollo, the sleek white rocket pointing to infinity and the touchstone for large, exciting, spectacular space firsts. In contrast, the Space Shuttle – ugly and unloved – undertook pedestrian missions in low Earth orbit, circling close to Earth and completing unglamorous tasks like Hubble servicing or Space Station truss assembly – prosaic, but useful.

I plan to discuss other aspects of this report (some of which are quite good and insightful) in future posts, but my initial reaction to the report is one of disappointment in its missed opportunity. The authors had a chance to set out a logical rationale and a path for the implementation of long-term human presence in space. They had a capable staff and a wide variety of knowledge and interesting ideas to access in the years they’ve spent writing this report. Having served on previous committees like this, I understand the tendency to believe that you already have the expertise needed to evaluate the major program “covered” by your committee membership. I also know (and knew after my first experience) that such a feeling is invariably mistaken. The key facts and pieces of a logical space program can be found on the NRC Committee website – not in the main report, but in the materials presented and submitted to the committee by outsiders. However, like finding diamonds in the host kimberlite, one must ferret out and separate the gems from the gangue.

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space policy, Space transportation | 45 Comments

“Pioneering Space” – Really?

1pi·o·neer  noun\ˌpī-ə-ˈnir\ : someone who is one of the first people to move to and live in a new area – Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary

A pioneer homesteader.  They came to stay, not to visit.

A pioneer homesteader. They came to stay, not to visit.

In Pioneering Space (the latest report released by NASA), much is made over the use of the word “pioneer.” Apparently, we are no longer exploring space – we are pioneering. This new term is discussed in detail within the pages of this brief document, carefully distinguishing how pioneering differs from simply exploring. In short, according to the agency, to pioneer means to go somewhere with an intent to stay there. It implies permanence and presence. This verbiage is directed toward their plans for human missions, as part of a “pathway to Mars,” but they make much of near-term activities in “cislunar space,” by which they mean the “vicinity” – not the surface – of the Moon.

With a cursory read, the new report seems to say the right words and terms – permanent, Earth-independent, expanding human presence. It claims the new path is “incremental” and “sustainable.” They roll out what they call an “Evolvable Mars Campaign,” laying great stock in each of those three carefully chosen words – it is “evolvable” because new technologies will be gradually introduced as they become available. It is focused on “Mars” as the “ultimate goal,” repeating the pattern of the last 50 years of space policy. And it is a “campaign” – less a new spaceflight program than a series of independent missions that connect thematically to the long-range “ultimate objective.”

After this rhetoric is absorbed, one must ask: Is what they have planned really congruent to what is claimed in the prefacing remarks of this document? A key insight of the early statements is that as spacefarers, we should be moving in the direction of permanence and incrementally expanding our presence. I completely agree with this attitude and have advocated exactly such an ethic on this blog and elsewhere for decades. However, the specific activities outlined in the remainder of the document seem to disconnect with this (laudable) set of goals laid down at the outset.

Rather than “cutting the cord” with Earth and permitting permanent presence, human missions to “cislunar” (as they define it) entail repetitious one-off trips using disposable spacecraft to set regions in free space (for periods of up to a few days or couple of weeks). Every mission is entirely self-contained, with launch of all equipment and consumables from Earth’s surface. No permanent assets are emplaced; each mission will carry its own spacecraft, which will re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a scenario straight from the Apollo template. No planetary destinations are visited or studied; spacecraft are put into “DRO” (distant, retrograde orbit – the new buzz term this report offers up). Oh, by the way, that DRO is around the object-that-cannot-be-named and the Orion will rendezvous with pre-emplaced targets, in the case of the ARM, a previously captured piece of rock.

There are no plans to develop and use any indigenous resources of space, except for the sunlight that will generate power from the solar arrays of the Orion spacecraft. Despite the fact that we will orbit an object that possesses billions of tons of water, no attempt will be made to harvest and use that resource. It is possible that the asteroid brought back into DRO might contain water, but there is no description of any type of water extraction experiment to be done during the ARM, nor will the Orion spacecraft have the facilities to conduct such experimentation. As near as I can tell from the document, the primary value of these missions is to give the crew “deep space exposure,” which in this instance involves the same micro-gravity environment currently experienced on the ISS, with the added bonus feature of greater exposure to (and risk from) both energetic solar particle events and cosmic rays from deep space.

In brief, this new “pathway” is the very antithesis of space permanence and Earth-independence. And the conundrum we find ourselves in is entirely the result of the agency’s dogmatic, categorical and incomprehensible refusal to consider the value of lunar surface missions as a necessary part of any program to develop the capability for interplanetary human spaceflight. Nothing about the plan outlined in Pioneering Space is “permanent” – no long-term infrastructure of space-based assets is established by these flights. Each mission is a self-contained one-off “stunt” that leaves no lasting legacy to build on. It does not “evolve” because each mission essentially repeats all the steps of the mission before it, orbiting the object-that-cannot-be-named in differing places for varying times, but accomplishing very little. Every gram of air, water and rocket fuel must be dragged up from the bottom of Earth’s gravity well, the deepest one of all the inner planets. This is not “Earth-independence.”

What would a genuine evolving and capable program look like? We would establish expanding spheres of human “reach” and operational experience. The program would proceed in increments, gradually but continuously expanding our theater of operations. Emphasis would be placed on developing human-tended staging and transfer nodes at increasing distances from Earth, starting possibly at GEO but extending later to the Earth-Moon L-points, low lunar orbit and the lunar surface. We would begin to assess the nature of the water resources of the lunar poles and experiment with their extraction, processing and use, both on the Moon and in cislunar space. We would launch vehicles and equipment designed to be based permanently in space, so that they are always available and will not have to be discarded and then re-launched from Earth after each mission. And most importantly, we would re-supply our travels from the material and energy resources that we now know to be abundant in cislunar space, most especially, the enabling asset of lunar water and its myriad uses.

If we desire to “pioneer” the space frontier, there are certain skills we must master. Settlers in the American west had to know how to clear land, hunt and fish for food, build shelter, develop clean and reliable water delivery, and establish presence by homesteading on the frontier. In a similar manner, space pioneers have skills to learn. We must learn how to supply ourselves from what’s locally available. We must learn to cope with the harsh environments of both interplanetary space and the surfaces of alien worlds. We must learn how to build redundant, fault-tolerant and repairable systems capable of long-duration operation. And we must assemble this constellation of different systems in an incremental, affordable and capable manner.

Challenging indeed.  But that’s what a pioneer understands their job to be and what they set out to do.  From the verb:

  1. pi·o·neered, pi·o·neer·ing: to open up (an area) or prepare (a way); rockets that pioneered outer space; to settle (a region). – The Free Dictionary
Posted in Lunar development, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 42 Comments

New post at Air & Space: Gordon Swann, Geology Teacher to the Astronauts

I have a new post over at Smithsonian Air & Space about my good friend, Gordon Swann, who passed away last week.  Gordon was the PI of the field geology team for the Apollo 13, 14 and 15 missions and developed many of the procedures for collecting samples on the Moon.  He was a great guy and he will be missed.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments