The Space Program – A Modest Proposal

The Cape York meteorite, currently at the American Museum of Natural History, New York.  Get back to where you once belonged.

The Cape York meteorite, currently on display at the American Museum of Natural History, New York. Get back to where you once belonged. (Photo by AMNH)

A recent article on the status of the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM, or as I call it, the “Haul Asteroids!” mission) envisions a forthcoming partisan fight. The Verge article claims that the ARM, “strongly supported” by NASA, is opposed by Republicans on the Hill, with Congressional Democrats giving it only middling to tepid support. One could question the basic assertions of this piece at length, but what struck me was an unmentioned, key aspect of the ARM controversy – that NASA’s Small Bodies Working Group (SBAG, pronounced “s-bag” by those in the know), the committee of scientists who advise the agency on scientific questions and missions to small bodies such as asteroids, basically look upon this mission as irrelevant and silly. Because this community is the beneficiary of the scientific bonanza supposedly set to pour forth from this mission, this is important information.

The basic concept of the ARM is to first find a small near-Earth asteroid, collect it into an expandable bag and then attach a solar electric propulsion module to it. It will then be slowly returned to cislunar space and placed in high orbit around the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named. Once there, this purloined space rock will be accessible for rendezvous by human crews using the forthcoming Orion spacecraft. When the crew encounters this captured and displaced object, they will hook on, chip off some pieces and return them to Earth for analysis.

What are these samples likely to tell us? We actually have an inkling of the knowledge they might provide from previous vast study of meteorites – those rocks from space that have fallen on the surface of the Earth for millennia. In fact, we may already have – now existing in the pages of the tens of thousands of scientific papers previously published on meteorites – the scientific information that the ARM allegedly will return. Talk about a knowledge revolution!

I’m at a loss to explain why one aspect of the ARM mission hasn’t been discussed in the media: seeing that advocates of the ARM think nothing about re-arranging the architecture of the Solar System for their convenience, environmental activists might object to the very idea behind the mission. We can’t get to a near-Earth asteroid with the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS), so let’s just drag the asteroid to us! Imagine a defenseless rock, innocently tumbling its way through space, only to be snagged, bagged, and defiled – appropriated and exploited by arrogant, human interlopers. There ought to be a law!

Then too, the SLS program has a problem. The out-years budget for NASA allows for the development of the launch vehicle and the supporting infrastructure that it requires, but no money is budgeted for payloads. This has led some agency officials to solicit possible unmanned, scientific payloads – missions that entail using large, massive spacecraft that need quick trajectories to deep space destinations. Although a few potential robotic science missions have been identified, there are not nearly enough of them to keep the SLS manifest fully populated.

These two ideas – appropriating an asteroid and a need for destinations for our new spacecraft got me thinking about finding some common ground. As I mentioned previously, meteorites have fallen to Earth for thousands – millions of years. The total amount probably exceeds several hundred thousand tons of material, of which we have only accounted for a few hundreds of tons. These former near Earth objects (NEO) came from space – their rightful domain before being captured by Earth’s strong gravitational pull. And as we’re sentient beings of conscience, we should both desire and strive to restore the natural balance of things in the universe, as we understand them to be.

So, I propose that we send the Earth’s collections of meteorites back whence they came. We should round up every meteorite in public ownership (the Curatorial Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston has hundreds of kilograms of meteorites collected in Antarctica) and load them onto SLS rockets. The abundance of meteorites currently residing unnaturally in museums could be confiscated, along with the NASA collection. Although many meteorites are privately held, an international law could be passed to outlaw their ownership and these too could be added to the launch manifest. The law could further decree that any future meteorite landing on Earth is the property of the universe and will be returned hence with dispatch. Earth will be deemed a no-meteorite-go-zone, kept clean of these foreign bodies, with all endangered space rocks released back into their natural habitat. Kumbaya all around.

By returning these rocks and boulders to interplanetary space, we’d have a multitude of “exciting” destinations for the Orion spacecraft and SLS launch vehicle while biding our time until our “ultimate” mission to Mars. It is the right thing to do for these rocks. After all, it’s not their fault that they ended up here on the Earth – thoughtlessly swept up by the gravitational monster that it pleases us to call our home planet. We could send some of the meteorites into low Earth orbit. There, they will provide endless hours of training and amusement for the crew on the International Space Station, keeping them on their toes to maneuver the station in order to avoid collisions (Look lively, m’lads!). Other meteorites would be sent out into deep cislunar space, including locations near the Object-That-Cannot-Be-Named. Once in space, these free ranging beauties will provide a wide variety of targets for human missions.

This simple but innovative and sustainable mission plan accomplishes several objectives simultaneously. We create new payloads for the SLS launch vehicle, thus avoiding the embarrassment of developing a new heavy lift vehicle with nothing to put on top of it. We create a variety of new target destinations for future missions, thus providing years of top-notch human spaceflight spectacles, as each previously studied meteorite is approached, encountered, studied and sampled again, this time within the confines of its own natural habitat. We correct a great planetary wrong by putting the Solar System back into its original, natural order. And we’ll rest easier, knowing that we have ensured a vibrant, continuing space program while at the same time “giving back,” as the currently popular phrase would have it. There will always be meteorites needing rescue to return whence they came. Here is a true mission into the future – appropriate for our time and one that will elevate our civil space program for decades to come.

Posted in planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 33 Comments

“Overthrowing” Science?

The clockwork universe -- "overthrown" by relativity? (From Einstein and Eddington, BBC)

The clockwork universe — “overthrown” by relativity? (From Einstein and Eddington, BBC)

I enjoyed watching a couple of movies during the holidays. Covering important historical events, they detailed the back stories behind major scientific developments.

Einstein and Eddington, a BBC production from a few years ago (available on YouTube), is a dramatization of one of the most famous scientific experiments of the last century. The 1919 British expedition to Africa led by Sir Arthur Eddington, to observe and record a total solar eclipse, was undertaken to test Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

The Imitation Game tells the story of Professor Alan Turing’s involvement in cracking Enigma – the German coding device used to encrypt the military communications and operations of the Third Reich. This successful, British top-secret effort by a group of scientists and cryptologists, is credited with saving many lives and for shortening the duration of World War II considerably.

While these two films are interesting and reasonably well told, what caught my attention were certain ideas implied by the narratives. Viewers need to be cognizant of history – and artistic license – when a filmmaker uses the descriptor “based on a true story.” In both cases, the story lines got some things wrong. In Einstein and Eddington, it was implied that the General Theory of Relativity (tested and validated by Eddington’s observations) “overthrew” Newtonian mechanics (the physics that we all learn in high school). At the end of The Imitation Game, we are told that “Turing’s Machine” (the collection of relays and rotating drums that was used to decode the Enigma messages) is “known today as the computer.” This statement implies that Turing invented the modern computer. I think that both of these “conclusions” (as they seem to imply) are wrong and do a disservice because they reflect a misunderstanding of how science works and the meaning of scientific knowledge.

Science is the process by which we explain nature. It involves not merely expensive laboratory equipment, white lab smocks and wild hair on absent-minded academics, but in reality, it is a way of thinking about problems. We observe the world and devise explanations for phenomena. Usually, most of these “guesses” are wrong. The most common misunderstanding about science is that it is a collection of immutable knowledge. Actually, it is a collection of the best explanations that we have at any given time. Any scientific explanation is subject to change, given enough compelling evidence. Researchers must keep an open mind about scientific explanations (called hypotheses), even those that have been long accepted by most workers (the scientific “consensus”).

When a hypothesis has been around for some time and continually passes whatever tests we can devise for it, it becomes elevated to the status of a scientific theory. Note well that this meaning of the word theory is very different from its common meaning in everyday speech. In common parlance, we typically use the word theory to mean what a scientist means by the word hypothesis, which is usually no more than an opinion (informed or not). But there is a very important difference.

In science, any hypothesis must be testable. To maintain its status as a viable concept, hypotheses undergo repeated testing. A million “passings” of an experimental test mean nothing against a single failure. If a hypothesis cannot stand experimental or observational scrutiny, it must be discarded. At best, it is incomplete; at worst, it is simply wrong. If a hypothesis continually stands up over time to many different tests, it gradually becomes accepted as a theory. Good hypotheses and theories not only stand up to rigorous testing, but they make predictions about what possible future tests will indicate.

The system laid out in Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687) described a mechanistic world that was predictable and comprehensible. Its famous Law of Gravitation made testable predictions, one of the first being a precise description of the timing and location of the next apparition of the 1682 comet (now known as Halley’s comet), which promptly appeared again in 1758. The Newtonian system was so thorough and comprehensive that it was thought to be the definitive explanation for the way our universe worked.

Toward the end of the 19th Century, problems with Newtonian mechanics appeared. These involved diverse phenomena ranging between the extremely small and the extremely large. Problems appeared with the classical understanding of light as a wave. The orbit of Mercury did not conform to strict Newtonian predictions. Einstein, working to explain some of these discrepancies, concluded that classical Newtonian mechanics were not wrong – merely incomplete. It was only at the extreme ranges of possible measurement (such as very massive objects like stars, and very high velocities such as the speed of light) that these discrepancies were evident. Einstein went on to develop a new system to better describe the behavior of the universe in these extremes.

The contention of the film Einstein and Eddington that Einstein “overthrew” Newtonian physics is simply wrong. General Relativity (Einstein’s name for his model) doesn’t overthrow anything – it extends mechanics into realms with which Newton had no experience. Under normal conditions (i.e., human-scale interactions with nature), Newton’s equations work just fine. Only at the very limits of observational science do we find that we need relativistic mechanics. A good example of this is the use of GPS systems to navigate cars, ships and airplanes. Because GPS satellites move at very high speeds (orbital velocity) and use extremely precise (atomic) clocks, corrections must be made for the fact that relativity predicts that time moves more slowly the faster you travel. This relativistic time correction is needed to give the meter-scale precision that GPS can deliver.

One of the most interesting things about General Relativity is that it does not replace Newtonian physics – it encompasses it. When velocities and distances are more within the realm of normal human experience, the Einstein gravitational equation reduces to the Newtonian one. Thus, General Relativity did not “overthrow” Newtonian theory – it extended it into new realms. Scientific revolutions rarely overthrow systems of thought, more typically they extend and refine our knowledge. (One exception is the overthrow of the Ptolemaic Earth-centered Solar System by the Copernican Sun-centered one.)

Likewise, Turing’s Enigma de-coding machine at Bletchley Park was not the world’s first computer. Computing machines have been built for centuries, each new one being more advanced, more powerful and more capable than the last. If any one person should be granted the “honor” of being the father of the computer, it is probably John von Neumann, whose basic computer architecture is used in every computer today. Turing certainly deserves great credit for his ideas about algorithms and computable numbers, but a “Turing Machine” is a theoretical concept, not a practical computer. The work of von Neumann built upon and extended Alan Turing’s work (whose value von Neumann fully acknowledged). Newton notably expressed the cumulative process of learning in science when he said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Science advances incrementally (small steps that contribute to knowledge) and cumulatively (each piece adds to the larger whole). It is also supposed to be self-correcting. Scientists must accept and acknowledge the concept that scientific knowledge is constantly changing and changeable. Thus, ideas like “the opinion of the majority of scientists” or “consensus” reflect not science but our current incomplete (and likely mistaken) state of knowledge. The worst science of all twists new observations, facts and discoveries inside out to preserve the viability of some existing model. A wide variety of current popular scientific ideas (such as the origin of the Moon and global climate change) belong in this category. The attractiveness or appeal of an idea is not relevant to its validity. Scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable. If they are not, we’re just chasing our tails.

I strongly recommend both films for enjoyable entertainment and insight into how science works – just watch out for the producers’ misunderstandings of it.

Posted in Lunar Science, Philosophy of science | 19 Comments

On the Habitability of the Moon and Mars

Moon Mars cities

Humanity’s future homes? Understand the problem first. (Artwork by R. A. Smith)

After reading the comments to a question recently posed at Reddit, I’m once again struck by how quickly a serious discussion about space can fly off the rails without knowledge of basic facts and their implications. The question that was raised is “Why is everyone so eager to colonize Mars, while the Moon, with its proximity and low gravity, sits empty?” As you might expect, the comments on this question vary widely in their relevance and cognizance. I thought it might be useful to collate some of the relevant facts that must be considered in determining which body is most useful for learning the life skills of an off-planet species.

Of course, the word “colonize” is loaded with different interpretations, but in this case, I take it to mean the establishment of permanent human settlements on either world. As is so often the case, the discussion at Reddit quickly turns toward comparing the two objects in terms of their resources and surface environments. While some of the comments are well informed, many misconceptions about the properties of both objects are readily evident – both confusing the casual reader and inhibiting the discussion.

Humans need raw materials, wherever they live, including light elements (e.g., oxygen, hydrogen and carbon (see page 4 of this paper), usually associated with the needs of life support, such as air, water and food) and heavier elements (needed to make things, including structures and machines). Energy is required to process this material into whatever form is required. Fortunately, all of the objects of the inner Solar System are rich in materials, although their concentrations vary from place to place. The critical controlling factor on whether a place can be inhabited is the availability of a reliable and continuous source of energy.

There is no “Second Eden” in our Solar System. Wherever people travel in the space around our Sun, they will have to create a protective environment to shield their bodies from the harsh conditions that they encounter. Because we are talking about not merely exploring, but rather living off the Earth, we need to be able to make what we need to survive from locally available materials. Naturally, some places are easier to settle than others, but when deciding which locations have more merit, it is important to fully understand all the requirements for habitation, not just the most obvious (albeit critical ones), such as the availability of water or the depth of the local gravity well. The key light element materials needed to support life are the so-called CHON elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen). Water supplies the middle two, but sources of both carbon and nitrogen must be found and available for harvest. After collection, we must be able to find or synthesize the substances needed, which involves a lot of chemical processing, time, and energy.

The Moon is depleted in light elements (although large quantities are present near the poles) but is well endowed in the heavier rock-forming elements (e.g., iron and aluminum). Over billions of years of micrometeorite bombardment, the lunar surface has been ground into a fine, grain-sized dust of jagged, angular fragments of minerals and glass. Moving parts quickly become immobile when coated with this talcum powder-like, abrasive dust. Future lunar inhabitants will need to mitigate these effects, as well as protect themselves from the transfer and inhalation of the local surface dust. The Moon has no appreciable atmosphere (its exosphere has a surface pressure of 10-15 bar, or about one-thousandth of a trillionth of the atmospheric surface pressure of Earth). The lack of a global magnetic field means that the lunar surface is a hard radiation environment. Both solar particles (including coronal mass ejections) and galactic cosmic rays bombard its surface. Over the course of a single lunar day (28 Earth days) at the equator, the Moon experiences thermal extremes ranging from 100° C to -150° C, while at the near-permanently lit areas near the lunar poles, the temperature is a constant -50° C. Compared to the planets, the Moon’s low gravity (about 1/6 that of the Earth) makes it a relatively easy object to access and leave (something we did successfully on six occasions, 45 years ago).

Mars appears to be richer in light elements than the Moon. We know very little about the nature and abundance of the heavier elements on Mars, but meteorites (that we believe come from Mars) suggest that its crust is made of rocks quite similar to those that make up both Earth and Moon. Thus, it is likely that iron is very abundant, and it is probable that aluminum and other metals can also be found in quantity. Like the Moon, Mars also has very fine dust, but it appears to be composed of clay minerals and thus, it is likely to be both softer and less abrasive than lunar dust. However, analysis of data from landed probes suggests that Mars dust may be highly reactive chemically (including the presence of toxic substances, like peroxides). Future Mars inhabitants will need to protect themselves from these substances.

Mars has an atmosphere but it is extremely thin (surface pressure is about 6 millibars, or six thousandths of an Earth atmosphere) and is composed almost completely of carbon dioxide. The martian atmosphere can be used to aerobrake (i.e., slow down a spacecraft during landings) but its atmosphere is not thick enough to eliminate the need for significant propulsive braking. This is a problem since the martian gravity is more than twice that of the Moon, or about 3/8 (0.38) the gravity of the Earth. Landing on Mars with heavy (i.e., human-sized) landers remains an important, unsolved issue (called the Entry-Descent-Landing (EDL) problem). The deep gravity well of Mars means that bigger, more energetic spacecraft will be required to get off the planet (and streamlined, as initial passage will be through an atmosphere that, while thin, is still significant). Mars is cold, but warmer periods occur in some areas (temperatures range from about -150° C near the poles, up to almost 20° C during summer at the equator). Although its atmosphere provides some protection, the surface of Mars remains a hard radiation environment, roughly equivalent to what is received by the equipment and crew on board the International Space Station.

On both planets, humans must be protected from the local environment. Pressurized habitats are needed and must include shielding from radiation. Such protection will likely be accomplished through the use of local material as shielding, either water (an excellent radiation protective) or local soil, requiring high-power machinery to excavate and move large amounts of material. Both Moon and Mars contain significant deposits of water. On the Moon, water is found in quantity within the permanently dark floors of polar craters. Hydrogen is also implanted on the grains of the lunar soil in extremely small quantities. Water appears to be more widely distributed on Mars, being found as vapor in the atmosphere, chemically bound in clay minerals everywhere, and in some localities at higher latitudes, near the surface as ground ice.

Energy is the critical pacing item for colonization. Wherever people go in space, they will need energy and lots of it. We must create a special environment to protect ourselves, something we get naturally here on Earth. The principal sources of electrical energy in space travel are solar and nuclear. The closer you are to the Sun, the more solar energy is available. Because Mars is about 1.5 times as far from the Sun as the Earth-Moon system, solar energy is less than twice as intense there (inverse-square law). This allows small robotic spacecraft to operate on Mars with solar panels, but solar electric, as the sole source of energy for larger vehicles and facilities (such as human habitats), is not practical. It is certainly inadequate for the amounts of energy needed for resource processing necessary to support a human colony. For this reason, credible plans for the colonization of Mars rely on the continuous operation of nuclear reactors.

On the Moon, a day/night cycle of two weeks duration (at the equator) means lunar inhabitants must survive a very long, cold night without solar power. In the past, ideas about lunar habitation have always collided with this reality, leading to a requirement of a nuclear reactor. Recently, however, mapping of the Moon’s surface found areas near the poles of the Moon that remain in sunlight almost continuously. This is possible because the Moon’s spin axis is nearly perpendicular to its plane of orbit around the Sun. This discovery makes lunar habitation much more likely. We can now envision an initial human presence off-planet without the need for the near-term development of a practical space nuclear reactor (an item that does not currently exist and will require several billions of dollars for development).

One last consideration is the distance from Earth. The Moon has the advantage of being relatively close – about three days away on typical trajectories. Moreover, as it is in orbit around the Earth, the Moon is constantly available for both arrival and departure, so a quick bug-out is always an option. In contrast, launch windows to Mars occur infrequently, on the order of every two years with current technology. Transit times (one-way) are several months in duration and do not offer easy abort options. The proximity of the Moon results in instantaneous RF communications (3 seconds round trip) while the distance of Mars means that communications between Earth and Mars have time-lags of tens of minutes.  Thus, habitation requires much more local autonomy at Mars than the Moon.  Unless the first colonists have a death wish, these issues of proximity and access must be addressed.

We know about de-conditioning of the human body in zero gravity, but we are completely ignorant of such effects in the fractional gravity the Moon and Mars. We think that problems from radiation can be minimized, but the long-term effects of living in a shielded environment are unknown. Some focus on initial access as the biggest problem, but gravity is only one factor and consideration among many. Any debate about where to “settle” in space must be cognizant of these and many other facts. Both the Moon and Mars have their respective advantages and disadvantages. The decision over where to focus our limited resources in the near term must take into account the relative abundance of materials needed, their locations on the object and our ability to access and process them into a form that we can use.

Debate is good and is to be encouraged but only informed debate is useful and essential.

Related: A comparison of asteroids vs the Moon as a space destination can be found in this 3-part series:

Destination: Moon or Asteroid? Part I: Operational Considerations

Destination: Moon or Asteroid? Part II: Scientific Considerations

Destination: Moon or Asteroid? Part III: Resource Utilization Considerations

Posted in Lunar development, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 53 Comments

The Demise of a Well-Informed Public

The newly completed (and now abandoned) A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis.  How symbolic?

The newly completed (and now abandoned) A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis. How symbolic? (NASA)

Two recent pieces published in the bellwether of Beltway conventional wisdom, the Washington Post, compel me to respond. The first article focuses on the demise of the aerospace manufacturer North American Aviation (founded in 1928), the company that built the Apollo and Space Shuttle spacecraft. The author’s intent is to explore how and why America’s middle class became “lost.” The second piece notes the completion of a new rocket engine test stand (followed by its immediate “mothballing”) at Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center. Seemingly unconnected, they collectively illustrate a breakdown in the competence and reliability of modern American news reporting. Due to inadequate research, the writers do not produce thoughtful, logical analysis and thus, have failed in their duty and obligation to inform their readership.

The article on North American’s operations in Downey California is part of a broader series that looks at changes in the American economy, so one might not expect a thorough analysis of the history of the space program. On the other hand, such history is relevant (as is often the case) to the topic addressed and thus, vital to the questions asked in the series – especially when the author begins by asking, “How did this happen?”

North American Aviation was one of the giants of the nation’s aerospace industry. Although famous for its involvement in the Apollo program, North American developed several historically significant military aircraft including the P-51 Mustang fighter, F-86 Sabre jet fighter, and the X-15 rocket plane –vehicles that set new records for performance and versatility. With the advent of the space age, North American not only built the Apollo Command Module, but also the groundbreaking S-II second stage of the Saturn V moon rocket. Practically hand-made, this large cryogenic hydrogen-oxygen stage was a technical milestone, functioning near flawlessly. North American used this technical and human expertise to develop and build the Space Shuttle, a vehicle initially intended as one part of a larger transportation system meant to extend our reach throughout cislunar space.

Much more than simply a manufacturing plant, North American’s presence in the Los Angeles area was symbolic of the large-scale, dispersed high-technology aerospace industry in southern California. Jobs were plentiful for skilled, competent workers returning from the war and they flocked to the West coast to settle and raise their families (many of whom also went on to work in the aerospace business). Numerous small aircraft, space, and technology firms could be found in the region, supplying parts and subsystems to North American and other major space contractors. In part, this activity was responsible for the expansive job and economic boom of the Pacific coast – activity driven by the defense needs of a nation now locked in a global geopolitical struggle with the Soviet Union.

With the collapse of the Berlin Wall marking the end of the Cold War, it was inevitable that the aerospace industry would contract. Recognizing this – and also recognizing the critical importance of this technology and research sector to America’s security – in 1989, President George H. W. Bush proposed the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), featuring a permanent return to the Moon and a human Mars mission. Such an ambitious set of space goals would revitalize the nation’s civil space program (giving it a renewed sense of purpose and direction) and maintain a minimal level of the technological-industrial infrastructure and the skilled workforce necessary to innovate and ensure our national security. After President Bush lost his bid for re-election, Congress and the Clinton administration abandoned the SEI and shifted the so-called “peace dividend” (i.e., the funding previously allocated for national defense in the Cold War) into entitlements. The aerospace industry (and the jobs therein) subsequently underwent a major collapse and through a decade of mergers and acquisitions, emerged in the diminished form it takes today.

None of this is mentioned in the Washington Post article. Instead, it wistfully recounts that once there was a factory in Downey that built spacecraft and provided good paying jobs for people straight out of high school. The piece fails to note that once there was an entire high-tech industry in southern California, one that enabled America to become a superpower and prevail in a 50-year struggle against what was undoubtedly an “Evil Empire.” Rather than focusing on the ramifications of those historical facts, the author instead meanders into a rambling, Occupy Wall Street-type class warfare diatribe about the lack of jobs in Downey paying a “living wage.” New Space guru Elon Musk makes a cameo appearance in this doleful tale, but only to double-cross the city fathers when he decides to build his new Tesla electric car plant in the Bay Area, rather than at the old North American Aviation site.

The other Washington Post story explores the construction and then near-immediate abandonment of the new $349 million A-3 test stand at NASA Stennis Space Center. This facility, designed to vacuum test the new J-2X rocket engine (a modern variant of the engine that propelled astronauts to the Moon in the Saturn S-IVB stage) was built as part of the now-cancelled Constellation program. The story relates how – even after Project Constellation had been “cancelled” – decisions were made at several points to go forward with the construction of the test stand. The piece repeats several myths about changes done to the space program under the current administration, something we have now come to expect in this reworked “news” coverage.

The article relates the fiscal difficulties of building the facility (including the inevitable cost growth associated with changing requirements and realities) but then re-writes the history of President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) – the 2004 program designed to return Americans to the Moon and prepare for missions to Mars and other destinations. It is implied that Bush called for missions to the Moon by 2015 (true enough – mentioned in his speech), but it does not note that date was not a deadline, but a guideline. It repeats the standard erroneous interpretation of the 2009 Augustine committee that lunar return was so under-funded that NASA might never get there. In fact, that committee used cost-estimating rules and accounting techniques almost guaranteed to give inflated-cost, late delivery results. In consequence, the President had the cover of “expert analysis” to do what he had desired to do from the beginning – cancel the VSE.

However, a single Presidential speech cannot cancel a national strategic decision twice endorsed by two different Congresses (in the 2005 and 2008 NASA Authorization Acts). Congress needed to be onboard with the President’s plan to abandon the VSE. Several members were acutely aware that by terminating NASA involvement with building and operating heavy lift rockets, a hard-won capability relevant to national security was being permanently discarded without due consideration. To patch over this gaping wound, Congress re-established a program to develop a heavy lift booster, largely on the basis of testimony that any human missions beyond LEO would ultimately require some type of heavy lift capability. Common mythology among space observers is that establishing the Space Launch System (SLS – derisively referred to as the “Senate Launch System” by its most ardent critics) was all about protecting jobs in selected states and Congressional districts. In fact, some members understood the national strategic concerns. A launch system is not simply a pile of rocket hardware – it is an industrial capability consisting of tooling, supporting facilities and infrastructure, and most importantly, human capital and experience – assets that once dissipated are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reassemble. It must be noted that Congress never “canceled lunar return” – human cislunar missions (including to the lunar surface) are still part of the language of the 2010 NASA Authorization strategic direction (not that you will hear of it in the news coverage).

It is not at all clear that the A-3 test stand is the worthless boondoggle portrayed in this article meant to ferret out and highlight waste in our ever-dwindling discretionary spending fraction of the federal budget. We will need some type of advanced upper stage to send people on missions beyond low Earth orbit – the alleged strategic direction of our nation’s civil space program. That upper stage will have to have an engine very much like the J-2X (if not that item itself). Moreover, since new engines must be tested, NASA now has the facilities to develop it. Of course, not using a new and expensive facility is silly, but the blame for that does not lie with the people who built it but with the ones who decided not to honor the commitments of the previous national leadership.

I find these two stories – no doubt considered by some to be fine examples of investigative journalism – to be poorly thought out, cliché-ridden, illogical and suffering from a lack of understanding and no appreciation for the history of their respective topics. I would like to think such reporting is the exception rather than the rule, but alas, I find this type of coverage (especially in regard to the space program, an area in which I work) all too common these days. It is especially frustrating because there are times when journalists do the required work and get things right. Regrettably, most news reports on space are assembled by gathering some quotes from the usual go-to sources, mixed well with current conventional wisdom on how something was or is “unaffordable,” and then duly garnished with platitudes about how we’ll have people on Mars in 15-20 years. So, just go about your daily lives and try not to think too hard about the two incompatible things you’ve been told – that Congress is spending NASA money on wasteful pork and that we will have people on Mars in 15-20 years. If that doesn’t compute, perhaps further inquiry about what has been (and is being) reported is in order.

With so much being omitted or misrepresented about the space program, it isn’t much of a stretch to believe that reportage in other fields of human endeavor is also suspect. Technical shallowness, exacerbated by ignorance of history and old-fashioned laziness, leaves us witnessing the demise of yet another national security imperative – an informed electorate.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space industry, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 41 Comments

The Flight of Orion

New post up at “Once and Future Moon” on the Orion spacecraft, its upcoming test flight this week, and some observations on the program in general.  Comment here if you are so inclined.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology, Space transportation, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

UPDATED: China’s Latest Lunar Mission

I have a new blog post up at Air & Space about the flight of Chang’E 5T and its significance to the Chinese space program.  Comment here, if so desired.

Update added 10 December, 2014:

I have been directed to a news story from Chinese media indicating that the portion of the Chang’E 5T spacecraft that did not re-enter Earth’s atmosphere has looped around the Earth and returned to to the Moon, parking at Earth-Moon L-2 (a point about 60,000 km directly above the center of the lunar far side).  The story goes on to say that the plan is to bring the spacecraft back down into low lunar orbit for additional high resolution mapping next month.

Once again, this new development demonstrates Chinese ability to position assets throughout cislunar space at will and loiter there for extended periods.  No one in the American space program seems to be concerned about this capability, but they should be.

Posted in Lunar exploration, Lunar Science, space policy, space technology, Space transportation | 6 Comments

The Apollo Program and American “Culture”

History through a prism - and not a particularly clear one.

History through a prism – and not a particularly clear one.

No Requiem For The Space Age by Matthew Tribbe looks at the culture of American society and how it reacted to the achievements of the Apollo program. Tribbe’s book, drawn from his Ph.D. dissertation “The Rocket and the Tarot: The Apollo Moon Landings and American Culture at the Dawn of the Seventies,” is both interesting and infuriating – interesting in that it collates much of the contemporary Luddite, anti-space rhetoric all in one place and infuriating for the same reason. The author’s thesis is that “informed opinion” at the time of Apollo held that it was significant, but no one knew why. Tribbe accepts as gospel many of the same tropes that analysts assumed then (and presumably still do) but more significantly, he attributes more credibility to the critics of Apollo than they merit, then or now.

The book is organized by chapter, with each viewing the Apollo lunar landings through the prism of various sub-groups: East Coast intelligentsia, media (print, audio and visual), the bohemian “alternative lifestyle” groups (obsessed over by many in the media), and finally, the general working and voting public. Tribbe makes the common assumption that Apollo ended because “people lost interest in going to the Moon,” even though he quotes public opinion surveys collated by Roger Launius that in fact, the American people were never very interested in lunar exploration to begin with. Tribbe claims to understand that Apollo was not a great leap into the cosmos but rather, a geopolitical contest with implications that were very much Earth-bound, yet seems perplexed that despite the success of Apollo, it was dead-end for space exploration. If he understood the former point, he would realize that Apollo was never about space exploration.

The most disturbing feature of this book is the importance afforded to the many voices of discord and complaint about the Apollo program. I am annoyed not by his coverage of them (they are after all, part of the historical record) but by the elevated significance Tribbe assigns to them and their place in society. Most large collective undertakings have their critics, but for historical significance, what matters is their net effect on the undertaking in question – was it successful or not? In the case of Apollo, what clearly was successful was that we accomplished our national goal on schedule and beat the Soviets to the Moon. What Tribbe does not explore (or does not understand) is the very tangible benefit America achieved by winning the Moon race.

Some view the Apollo Moon landings solely as a “stunt” – a demonstration of American technological prowess. In this view, the lunar landings achieved little except for global public relations. While this aspect of the program is true, it certainly is not the entire story. The real value of Apollo was that it demonstrated to the Soviets both our technical abilities and our national resolve. A human lunar mission is an enormously difficult technical undertaking, something that the Soviets themselves had seriously attempted and failed to accomplish. That failure, underscored by America’s success, led the Soviets (and other aggressive regimes) to conclude that Americans could achieve any technological goal that they set as their goal. A decade later, to defend America and our allies against nuclear annihilation, President Ronald Reagan announced an effort to develop a shield in space. Many of the same American intelligentsia who thought Apollo to be “silly” loudly proclaimed the idea of a ballistic missile defense system as ludicrous and unworkable, calling it “Star Wars” and labeling Reagan an out-of-control “foreign policy cowboy.” However, the Soviets took “Star Wars” development very seriously. In fact, an opportunity for a major breakthrough in nuclear arms control was missed at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 solely because Reagan would not trade away SDI for a proposed elimination of Soviet nuclear missiles. With prospects of Reagan’s “Star Wars” neutralizing their nuclear arsenal, the Soviets commenced on a self-imposed race to develop their own missile defense system, which in turn sped up their nation’s eventual fall into financial collapse.

Why would the Soviets have insisted on such a provision at Reykjavik if SDI were merely some cowboy fantasy? Tribbe completely misses this concrete, substantive benefit of Apollo – American technical credibility and the power it wielded. In his mind, although the Apollo “stunt” was successful, it had no lasting effect on the state of the Cold War and even less effect on long-term spaceflight (to which it was only incidentally relevant). In fairness, this is a common perception in the current academic community; I simply find it a pity that someone who has studied this period so intently could miss a development of such an obvious significance.

Which brings me to my last point about No Requiem –Tribbe’s over-reading of the lasting significance of the counter-culture and its criticism of both Apollo and American society. It is certainly true that many über-sophisticates and literati were disdainful or openly contemptuous of the Apollo program, and of the people who made it all work. Thomas Paine, Administrator of NASA at the time of Apollo, famously described its success as the “triumph of the squares.” This clearly got the goat of the chattering classes, who to this day continue to spin tales of massive quantities of money “wasted” on things like human space missions.

In part, Apollo and the space program in general was a victim of its own success. The famous and beautiful “Earthrise” picture taken by the Apollo 8 crew became an icon for the burgeoning environmental movement, which as Tribbe demonstrates, quickly took an anti-technology, Luddite turn from which it has never fully recovered or disavowed. Lest you think that such a development is irrelevant to current issues with our civil space program, I note that Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren (who reportedly has had a significant role in the gutting of civil space under the current administration) is a disciple of Malthusian overpopulation alarmist and eco-loon Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University. Thus, one of the extremist “green” movement’s own is helping to set the current U.S. civil space agenda.

While Tribbe commits the common blunder of assigning nearly all of the Sixties generation to the bin of the counter-culture, nearly all of my high school classmates in flyover country (Kansas City, MO) were normal, middle-class teens, more interested in cars and girls than Vietnam protests. Moreover, virtually all of my friends and personal acquaintances went on to finish their college degrees, got ordinary jobs in the trades and professions, and married and raised families. The idea that there existed a rebellious generation that rejected the norms and values of American society is a myth perpetrated by a small group that engaged in these things (then and now). Although a minority, they have disproportionate representation in the media and academia, and thus play an outsized role in educating others. Those of us privileged to be alive at the time of humanity’s first steps onto another world remember it clearly and distinctly, recalling both the excitement and elation of those distant times with fondness.

The public did not “lose interest” in Apollo – it never had more than a passing interest in Apollo to begin with. Naturally, the first lunar landing drew unprecedented attention, as befitting any such event. But most people got neither too excited nor too offended about subsequent trips to the Moon. As with most historically noteworthy things, their importance at the time was not well understood, but that should not detract from their significance. In this country, things happen not because an outraged or excited public demands it, but because a few key people see an unmet need and take it upon themselves to address it. America has a nuclear navy today not because there was a grass-roots public movement to create one, but because a few visionaries, such as Admiral Hyman Rickover, saw the need for such a development and doggedly took the necessary steps to implement it.

Tribbe’s book is a concise and comprehensive compendium of negative, critical contemporary opinion about the Apollo program and a good reference to the historian for this purpose. But it is a distorted view of both the legacy of the space program and of America in the 1960s. It is illustrative of what the academy thinks of this country and would have others believe is an accurate reflection of those times. This is the past through a glass, and darkly – incomplete, distorted, and unreliable.

Posted in Lunar exploration, space policy, space technology | 17 Comments

Quinquennial Follies

The Big Three -- useful?

The Big Three — useful or useless?

About every five years, a committee is trotted out to report on the status and future of human spaceflight. Each of these reports generates a lot of disruption, press reports and head scratching. When it all dies down, very little (if anything) is accomplished. The last three of these ponderous tomes generated over the past ten years nicely document the decline and fall of the American civil space program. I thought it might be instructive to examine them on a comparative basis, showing how the initial promise and optimism of each report led ultimately to disappointment, with the space program becoming less capable and less secure – a continuous downward trajectory for human space exploration.

Let us begin ten years ago with the emergence of the report that I was directly involved with – the Aldridge Report. This document was the product of a Presidential Commission. (Each succeeding report was produced by a group with less bureaucratic stature but increased scope of responsibility, which should tell you something right there.) The Aldridge effort was chartered to study and report on how the new Vision for Space Exploration (the VSE, articulated by President George W. Bush in January, 2004) should be implemented. Our task was not to question the direction or strategic aims of the VSE, but merely to understand how NASA should organize itself to execute it.

The Aldridge Commission members (who met for 6 months) were in agreement with the long-term aims of the VSE. However, there were individual differences over how to implement it, which generated extensive debate on exactly what steps were most important and critical, as opposed to which were merely optional and desirable. The Aldridge Commission report strongly favored a more streamlined and efficient space agency, including innovations such as creating incentive prizes and awards for technology development, contracting with commercial entities for launch services, and converting the NASA field centers into federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC) – a model similar to that of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is run for the government by Caltech. One of our most important (and ignored) recommendations was to re-create the National Space Council, a White House-level body to oversee and periodically review agency progress on implementing the VSE – a step deemed vital to ensure continuity of purpose and as protection against any unraveling of the direction of the program. The VSE had strong bi-partisan support and had been blessed twice by the Congress, once under Republican Party leadership, once under Democratic Party leadership.

My personal disappointment with the aftermath of this report was the agency’s deft shrugging off of the oversight recommendation. Commission members were invited back to NASA Headquarters six months after the report had been submitted to receive a presentation on how well the agency had implemented our recommendations. Judging from the dog-and-pony show we received, it was clear that it was to be pretty much business as usual, which I suppose is not too surprising. No Administrator wants someone looking over their shoulder, criticizing their performance, or reminding them about what they were tasked to do. Thus, no executive oversight was created, a deficiency that would be felt sharply in the years ahead.

Five years after the Aldridge report, a new Presidential administration established the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, a.k.a., the Augustine Committee (named for its Chairman, retired former CEO of Lockheed-Martin, Norman Augustine). Note that this was a committee (not a commission), which placed it one rung lower on the bureaucratic totem pole. (Our commissions were signed by the President; this committee’s appointments were from the Administrator of NASA. See this.) This group was chartered not only to review and evaluate NASA’s progress towards the implementation of its human spaceflight mission, but also to assess that mission and make recommendations as to whether a shift in goal, destination or emphasis was warranted. Like the Aldridge Commission five years earlier, the Augustine committee was to expire after 6 months.

Reportedly, this group used detailed technical analysis (by the Aerospace Corp.) to support their conclusions, although many of their ground rule assumptions could be questioned. Of course, one can always get the answer one is seeking by defining the boundary conditions accordingly. The Augustine Committee received presentations on the status of Project Constellation, NASA’s implementation of the VSE, derived from their own internal architecture study – the ESAS in 2006. They concluded that while the Constellation approach was technically sound, it would require more funding (an additional $3 billion per year) to meet its announced schedule (note: schedule, not deadline). They suggested that a better approach would be to pursue what they called the “Flexible Path,” in which technology would be pursued now and destinations would be picked later. They also introduced the possibility of a human mission to a near-Earth asteroid as a destination alternative to the lunar surface (green eyeshade thinking, as no lander would be required with that choice – and thus, a lunar return would be eliminated).

The consequence of the Augustine report was a foregone conclusion. The administration provided the committee with artificially low budget numbers (the “FY 2010” budget line; see page 81 of Augustine), essentially guaranteeing that almost any forward path would be found to be “unaffordable.” It’s not like this administration had a problem with spending money – they had almost doubled the national debt through spending well over one trillion dollars per year on “economic stimulus,” none of which found its way into NASA coffers. Moreover, while it was often pointed out that the retirement of the Shuttle had been ordered by the previous administration, what was usually not also noted is that its retirement was being done as part of a process to replace the existing human spaceflight system with a new one. So, while development of the new system was terminated (with no replacement in sight) the old system was retired on schedule and sent off to museums with great fanfare. Agency direction and money was redirected to private companies to encourage the development of a commercial human spaceflight capability, and a vehicle(s) with which NASA would (ultimately) be able to purchase Earth to LEO transportation. We were (and remain) unable to transport astronauts into space and are dependent on Russia for a ride to our space station.

Congress did not stand idly by during this strategic confusion. After considerable whining and foot-dragging by NASA, Congress included specific direction to continue building the trans-LEO Orion spacecraft and a new, Shuttle-derived heavy lift vehicle. This effort is proceeding, although NASA still has no well-defined strategic horizon or destination that would make sensible use of this vehicle. A human mission to Mars (the “ultimate goal”) is both technically and fiscally distant; agency “happy talk” about the imminence of such a mission is meaningless drivel. Because human missions to near-Earth asteroids were also determined to be infeasible, an “asteroid retrieval” stunt mission was presented as the next new destination – a make-work fig leaf to cover the embarrassment of having no place to send Orion and nothing to do once we got there (making it an easy target for criticism and future cancellation).

Now, five years after the Augustine Report, comes the National Research Council’s Pathways to Exploration. This report, chartered by the Congress in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, is a product of the Committee on Human Spaceflight, an ad hoc group appointed by NRC staff – and another rung down the bureaucratic ladder. Taking over three years (unlike the 6 month timeframe of the two earlier reports), this report canvassed the widest cross-section of the space community and American society to address the questions of “where and why” humans should go in space. The effort produced a massive 258-page book, delving into questions of possible destinations, public opinion, architectural variables, necessary technologies and the “pathways” that combine these variables into executable programs.

The most notable feature of the NRC report is its framework assumption: the purpose of a national human spaceflight program is “exploration.” Thus, the guiding questions of the NRC study are “how far can humans go?” and “what can they do when they get there?” This greatly circumscribes the actual possibilities of human spaceflight. One can imagine people doing many different things in space. Most certainly, scientific exploration is one of them, but it is by no means the only thing. The NRC report spent almost no time considering the broad field of space applications and utilization, in which people go to and come from various destinations in space, in order to accomplish a wide variety of tasks – to build, to provision, to mine, to remain, to observe, to prosper, to live. The entire field of creating wealth from space appears nowhere in the NRC report; it is only concerned with continuing the existing paradigm of launching self-contained missions from Earth, collecting data, and returning safely. Sustainability of the program – not human presence in space – is the objective.

Although the NRC report contains much solid analysis, it ultimately presents us with a future that is largely unattainable. Repeating the ingrained meme of “Mars is the ultimate goal” does nothing to chart the correct path forward from where we are now – a billion miles and a trillion dollars away from any human Mars mission. Instead, they could have endorsed an incremental and gradual extension of human reach – from LEO to cislunar to the lunar surface to trans-lunar to the planets. At each step, the capabilities and facilities needed to enable the next step are developed. In other words, we need to build a sustainable path using the resources already in space. If the alleged technical and policy “experts” on space do not advocate a logical and sensible path, why should we expect it from our political leaders? In order to assure private investors that their capital has some reasonable protections – that their involvement is worth taking a considerable risk for a suitable reward – a long-term, sustainable national effort in space must be demonstrated. Without it, neither program will be implemented, nor remain sustainable.

Our civil space program (and the future for commercial space) is diminished as each major report comes and goes. The impact of the latest NRC report was virtually nil – NASA continues to plan its asteroid retrieval stunt mission and the Potemkin Village “commercial space program” is trotted out to demonstrate that we are accomplishing something. Press releases and debuts of product mock-ups have replaced actual flight hardware and experience. The NASA budget remains static, while the agency and Administration have given Congress and the public no particular reason to believe it is going anywhere or doing anything to deserve any more funding than it’s currently getting.

Once America and her partners took on, executed and achieved great and challenging tasks – a hallmark of vibrant, healthy countries guided by interested, knowledgeable leadership. Now, challenges are being denied and death by committee has replaced hard work and breakthroughs. National advancement and achievement is stymied. Americans recognize that this is the wrong trajectory for the country and wince as the nation retreats further down the ladder. There will be no pride or excitement surrounding a program that continues in total disarray. There will be no great wave of interested students clamoring to excel and achieve. What’s up next for our national manned space flight program? What shape will the wrecking ball take and who will be tasked to deliver the deathblow? I shudder in anticipation of the next quinquennial report.

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

A Lunar Road Trip

I have a new post up at Air & Space that describes an imaginary road trip across the surface of the Moon sometime in the no doubt distant future.  Comment here, if so inclined.

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The Fog of Space Policy

Our national space policy -- clear as a bell.

Our national space policy — clear as a bell.

NASA recently announced its “down-select” of the two space contractors who will receive additional federal money to further develop a space vehicle to transport human crew to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Perhaps not too surprisingly, they chose the two companies whose vehicle concepts most closely resemble NASA’s own Orion capsule: the Boeing CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon 2. A truly innovative design, the Dream Chaser lifting body of Sierra Nevada Corporation, was not selected. The ramifications of the selection illustrate some important facts about the current state of our national space program and the future of true commercial human spaceflight.

Conventional wisdom holds that we’re on the cusp of a new age of human spaceflight – a revolutionary transformation whereby space is opened to many users, rather than being available to only a few. It is proclaimed that with the development of commercial human transport to LEO and the accompanying advent of low cost launch services, the general public will soon be able to voyage into space. We are told that this follows an expected, natural progression, as private sector facilities and services always follow on the exploratory trail blazed by government or large, government-chartered efforts. NASA says that New Space companies are prepared to rush in where government has already trod. With this handoff, Mars is now the official exploratory horizon of our civil space efforts and all work shall be directed to that end, including the missions within the critical strategic arena of cislunar space, now deemed useful merely as a testing ground for “deep space vehicles” being designed to take us to Mars.

So, where are we in this “transformational” scenario? Let’s begin with a reality check on our current situation, as well as the likely prospects for the coming decades or so, a.k.a. “the near future.” Looking around, we see that the advent of commercial human spaceflight has yet to occur and, despite the hype, is not likely to occur for some time. Commercial operations have markets driven by needs and (to a much lesser extent) desires. At the moment, there is very little commercial demand for human flights to LEO. The belief of many New Space advocates – that there is an unrealized demand in space tourism or simply joy-riding into orbit – is not tenable. It’s been ten years since Space Ship One captured the Ansari X-Prize and we’ve yet to see a single, regularly scheduled commercial spaceflight company carrying paying passengers. True enough, seven people paid Russia for trips to space on the Soyuz, but these occurred on an ad hoc, non-scheduled basis and were more a procession of stunts than the purchases of a commercial service from a provider.

A notable effort to establish human spaceflight commerce in LEO is being undertaken by Bigelow Aerospace, with the aim of providing orbital facilities than can be leased out for whatever purpose a customer has in mind. Many hold the mistaken impression that Bigelow wants to build orbital hotels (probably because that’s how he made his fortune on Earth). However, his intention is to provide pressurized, human-qualified facilities in orbit without specifying how such facilities should be used. In technical terms, Bigelow’s company has made significant progress – they have successfully fabricated, launched into orbit and operated two prototype inflatable space structures. Yet no commercial flight to a Bigelow space station has occurred. The current focus of the company is to provide and operate an inflatable module to be attached to the ISS.

People should ask what’s holding up commercial human space efforts – that flood of commercial enterprises they’re being told are just itching to follow and fill the void left by NASA. One answer is that despite their best efforts to encourage its development, Bigelow Aerospace has been frustrated by the fact that no simple, inexpensive transportation system to and from LEO has emerged. In 2004, Bigelow offered a $50 million prize to find a provider who would develop such a system; that prize offer expired five years after its announcement without a single attempt to win it. So a commercial orbital facility remains a dream. To survive organizationally, Bigelow Aerospace has fallen back on the traditional venue of “Old Space” – being a contractor for NASA.

What do these facts say about possible markets for commercial human orbital flight? To me it says that despite slick New Space marketing, no robust demand for commercial human spaceflight yet exists. Both the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon 2 are prototype contractor space vehicles; they are specifically designed to service the International Space Station – and are funded by NASA. In the broadest sense, they simply represent space business as usual, albeit with a slightly modified contracting instrument.

And what of our national space program? Do these new developments (or more precisely, the lack of new development) in “commercial” spaceflight pick up where NASA left off? It’s hard to believe that commercial entities are back-filling capability in old areas (like cislunar space) for NASA when no capability is yet evident. However, this remains the agency’s attitude as they proclaim – “We’re on the critical path for Mars!” So, let’s examine that proposition.

The Orion spacecraft and SLS launch vehicle are designed for “deep space” exploration, i.e., human flight beyond LEO. When discussing these vehicles, NASA implies they are the pieces needed for future human Mars exploration. However, while they may be necessary pieces (that is debatable), they are not sufficient for a human mission to Mars. The SLS core stage can put about 70 metric tons into low earth orbit; a yet-to-be developed advanced version could ultimately put 120 tons into orbit. Yet, a human Mars mission powered with chemical-propellant requires at least 500-700 metric tons in LEO (perhaps more, depending upon the mission architecture and the opportunity provided by planetary alignment). Thus, at least 5 to 10 SLS vehicles are needed simply to get the required total mass into orbit (logistical problems of subdividing and packaging, preserving cryogenic propellant from boil-off, and assembly in space are left as an exercise for the student).

Next, envision the Orion spacecraft’s habitable volume, a space similar to a large walk-in closet – about 9 cubic meters (300 cubic feet, or a closet 5 by 10 by 6 feet in dimension). This volume must accommodate the 4-5 astronauts living in the spacecraft for almost three years. Clearly, Orion is not a suitable habitat for long-term living in space; it is simply an Earth-return vehicle designed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at escape velocity (about 11 km/sec). Its limitations recall its origin – the Orion vehicle is a spacecraft designed for missions to and within cislunar space, i.e., trans-LEO missions of short duration (up to a month), with a high-velocity, aerothermal entry at the end. Thus, some type of habitation module (probably of ISS derivation) will be needed. I have not addressed the (currently unresolved) problem of entry, descent and landing on the martian surface (these problems are also left as an exercise for the student).

In short, we are still a considerable distance from a human Mars mission, an event so far in the future that I contend it literally makes no sense to discuss at this point how these pieces will be used. The current penchant of NASA to discuss hypothetical missions, like asteroid retrieval, is a de facto recognition of this situation. NASA – now “on its way to the stars” – has created a void in cislunar space. This condition must not be confused with a vacuum about to be filled with commerce. It is instead a playing field of unfulfilled promise, now abandoned, for which no commercial market of any potency or necessity yet exists.

The down-select of the two commercial vehicles for crew transport to ISS continues the lacuna in which we currently find ourselves. It remains neither a program with a sustainable destination nor with the means to get anywhere, yet one that insistently and repeatedly proclaims a firm possession of both. Once NASA had a vision that would demonstrate the economic potential of cislunar space but they retreated before it could happen. Regrettably, we find ourselves stranded in this relentless fog of space “transition,” arguing over rockets with no place to go, while other nations clearly see the potential that awaits in cislunar space and are firmly fixed on obtaining it.

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