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.

This entry was posted in Lunar development, Lunar exploration, planetary exploration, space policy, space technology. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Buzz Moons Lunar Return

  1. A_M_Swallow says:

    A proposed reliability test of the Mars Transfer Vehicle (MTV) was to make a return trip to an asteroid. This got merged into a planetary defence technology test flight designed to show diversion of an asteroid is possible. The MTV was changed to Orion and an EVA to collect some rocks added.

  2. Michael Wright says:

    Buzz Aldrin is a great man with many accomplishments but I think we need industrialists rather than astronauts to lead the way. Industrialists are those that built the system like George Lewis, Joe Ames, Hugh Dryden, William Boeing, Donald Douglas, James McDonell, Dutch Kindelberger (yep, some of these guys were illustrated in PBS program Pioneers in Aviation). They were visionaries and able to channel resources to create something.

    However they did this many of their accomplishments with govt under urgency of war. Going to Mars and settle is all great but there is no sense of urgency. Neither is going to the moon or an asteroid. Unless someone can make a solid business case (just think of snagging an asteroid with high concentration of platinum).

    There is now commercial space which in ways is result of wealth inequality nowadays so you have billionaires with so much money they can afford to pursue a dream of going to space (and don’t have to deal with elected officials) and also want to leave a mark or legacy like early billionaires such as Carnegie and Rockefeller. NASA’s role can be an enabler but not build rockets. They can kick in some money and do some high risk research.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-there is no sense of urgency. Neither is going to the moon or an asteroid.”

      If an asteroid was headed our way it would be urgent depending on the size. You might want to warn people to stay away from the windows….or to say goodbye to the human race if it is a big rock.

      If Chelyabinsk had killed thousands we would be living in a very different world. Imagine if the 911 hijackers had been thwarted. Planetary Protection ultimately calls for a Moonbase from which to launch nuclear interceptors.

      As for these billionauts I consider them a distraction so far. It would be great if something came of the whole New Space fantasy but in my view of reality they are squelching government funding with impossible promises.

      There is no cheap.

  3. Joe says:

    I do not like to speak badly of a national hero and Buzz seems like a nice guy (I met him once years ago when I was in college. Here were all these engineering students – Me included – waiting to ask questions about Apollo 11, when one woman in the group mentioned she was trying to quit smoking. Aldrin began sympathizing with her and spent the rest of his time there talking to her about how hard it was to quit smoking.).

    However he has been all over the map about what he believes our space goals should be. First Mars, then he was at least implying the Moon, now Mars again. Also, as you mention, his article does not really cover any new ground.

    I actually think the idea that SpaceX’s Shotwell was advocating for an increased NASA budget, specifically to end the fight between “New Space” and exploration is more interesting.

    There are only two readily apparent possible reasons for this:
    (1) This represents a change in SpaceX tactics, based on their reading of the political winds.
    (2) Shotwell is about to leave SpaceX.

    If it is (1), heads are going to be exploding all over the internet like the telepaths from the old movie “Scanners”.

    • billgamesh says:

      The weird subculture of “Ayn-Rand-in-space-libertarians” that patrol the internet looking to dogpile any criticism of SpaceX has existed for years; these creatures are a big part of the company identity because of this multi-year influence.

      New Space infomercials usually contain language somewhat critical but not overtly hostile to NASA and this is converted in one step by the Musk mob into vicious condemnation of anyone with praise for the space agency. In the fantasy world of the space clown wannabe, the enemy is “Old Space” and anything and anyone that is not “New Space.”

      Wish fulfillment drives some of this idiocy. It is largely unappreciated what a radical public relations victory Elon scored when he mentioned launch prices possibly going as low as 500 dollars a pound. This figure made everyone with a house mortgage and a yearning to be more than they are to suddenly consider themselves a potential astronaut- courtesy of an internet wunderkind. And the hero worship began.

      Private Space, New Space, Commercial Space; this “flexible path” has had a very bad effect on human space flight by promising to fly humans on the cheap. This has pitted those on one side who are true believers and the rest of us who are not so convinced. The fragmenting of public opinion by promising cheap is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

  4. I don’t think there is any evidence that international cooperation in space has made human space travel more affordable for the US. All its done for the domestic US space industry, IMO, is to outsource jobs to foreign countries. And the outsourcing of American industries over the past few decades has had an enormous– deleterious effect– on the US economy!

    The government doesn’t build rockets. Private industry does. NASA said it needed a heavy lift vehicle for its future beyond LEO missions and Boeing Aerospace made the case that it was the best company around that could get the job done. Its that simple.

    The principal reason for a human space program, IMO, is not to explore. Robots can do that without humans and have already begun to explore most of the prominent worlds an objects in our solar system. The principal reason for having a human space program, IMO, is to to find out if it is possible for humans to live permanently and reproduced beyond the Earth without being predominantly dependent on the Earth’s material and economic resources.

    The primary role of NASA’s– human space program– should be to fund the development of technologies that will enable NASA to travel anywhere within the solar system in order to establish permanent outpost on worlds that could potentially be industrialized and colonized by private commercial entities.

    A simple extraterrestrial outpost could be a facility that accommodates as few as four individuals or as many as several dozen individuals. But a simple outpost should not be equated or confused with an extraterrestrial colony which I interpret as being large human facilities capable of accommodating hundreds, thousands, or even millions of individuals.

    The expansion of human industrial civilization into the rest of the solar system has the long term potential of greatly enhancing the survival of our species while also substantially increasing the economic wealth of human civilization.

    But NASA’s role– should not be– to colonize and industrialize the rest of the solar system, but to simply find out if it is scientifically and technologically possible to do so!

    If NASA had been allowed to continue to pioneer the Moon and the rest of the solar system after the end of the Apollo era, private industry and possibly even human colonist would already be on the surface of the Moon and Mars. And America would probably be a lot richer and much more technologically advanced than it is today!


    • Vladislaw says:

      “The principal reason for a human space program,”

      It should be primarily about transportation. Space transportation should be a commercial service as is all other forms. NASA and or any other federal, state, or commercial interest should be able to utilize that transportation system. The federal government did not poll individuals about why, where or why they were going to do when utilizing a commercial transportation system, all that was needed was there was a demand for a service that did not exist.

      “The primary role of NASA’s– human space program– should be to fund the development of technologies that will enable NASA to travel anywhere within the solar system”

      Here we differ, I believe NASA should be developing technologies and shoveling it into the commercial sector as fast as possible so COTS can take place, Commercial Off the Shelf. NASA is never going anywhere as the last 30 years have shown. Congressional porkonauts have priced human spaceflight out of NASA’s ability to fund it.

      • Joe says:

        Skipping the juvenile snark about “porkonauts”, you say “It should be primarily about transportation.”

        Questions: Transportation to where and for how many people and supplies?

        Without knowing the answer to those basic questions, you do not have any way to set requirements for the transportation you would fund.

        “I believe NASA should be developing technologies and shoveling it into the commercial sector as fast as possible so COTS can take place, Commercial Off the Shelf.”

        Same questions (as you are really only repeating yourself).

        Until you know what you want to do, you cannot define what you will need to do it.

        I know this violates a lot of “New Space” dogma, but then a lot of reality does.

        • Vladislaw says:

          So that is a prerequiste for a automobile company to build each and every car? WHERE is this car going every single time it is used? How many will ride in it each and every time it is used? What are the people going to do at the the distination they drive to with each and every car? How much cargo with be in the trunk each and every time the car is used?

          You question is rather silly. The market determines that, not a government agency.

          Three commercial firms have decided that 7 passengers is optimized for current and future destinations in LEO. ( ISS and Bigelow) There already exists commercial firms to handle cargo to current and the immediate future destinations. There are currently consumers willing to spend millions for transportation for earth to LEO.

          I do not see why a government agency has to be in the middle of those market decisions.

          • Joe says:

            “So that is a prerequiste for a automobile company to build each and every car?”

            You need to read the post below by William Mellberg (July 28, 2014 at 5:26 pm ) and try to grasp the concept of meeting an already existing (and well defined) market. Unless and until you can do that, it serves no purpose to try and discuss this with you.

            “You question is rather silly.”

            See previous comment about juvenile snark

            “Three commercial firms have decided that 7 passengers is optimized for current and future destinations in LEO.”

            The 7 crew size was determined by what was considered to be the maximum crew size of the ISS at the time the “Commercial” Crew Program was initiated. Again you need to learn the difference between a real commercial enterprise and meeting the requirements of a single customer.

          • Vladislaw says:

            So in the entire history of capitalism, each and every new business start up has ALWAYS started in a preexisting and totally defined Market?

            I hate to break it to you but there are a lot of start ups that have apsolutely no clue if their market will actually develop. There is not a “well defined” market for commercial space, we only have three measures that a market exists. Russia had a long waiting list for people willing to spend millions for a trip to LEO ( pent up demand because no firms exist to service the excess demand) Bigelow Aerospace has 7 signed MOU’s from 2nd tier countries that want to start a space program based in LEO ( he said there were many more that waiting to see it start up first. ( Pent up demand because no firms exist to service the demand) and Virgin Galatic, although it is suborbital it is still going to cost a chunk of change and there are close to 800 costumers waiting to go. ( pent up demand because there are currently no firms able to service the demand)

            There isn’t a well defined market yet because a market was never allowed to be created. But pent up demand is there and can be catagorized.

          • Joe says:

            Okay Vladislaw, I will go for one more round; but I do not play the “he who posts last wins” game. After this you are on your own.

            “I hate to break it to you but there are a lot of start ups that have apsolutely no clue if their market will actually develop.”

            How many of those startups required $100 of millions to try their plan? How many of them got those $100 of millions from the government? There is no practical comparison.

            “Russia had a long waiting list for people willing to spend millions for a trip to LEO ( pent up demand because no firms exist to service the excess demand)”

            SpaceX currently charges NASA an average of $133 million/flight to deliver cargo to the ISS. Assume that the cost of a crewed Dragon Vehicle (if it ever comes to exist) is only $140 million/flight (and that is a very optimistic assumption). If you also assume that the Dragon will actually carry 7 passengers and all 7 of those will be paying customers (no crew – very unlikely – again to make the case look as good as possible). SpaceX would have to charge at least $20 million/seat. That better be a very long “waiting list”, if you are planning for the tourist program to last more than a couple of flights.

            “Bigelow Aerospace has 7 signed MOU’s from 2nd tier countries that want to start a space program based in LEO”

            I actually like Bigelow and his erectable modules, but an MOU (Memo of Understanding) is a nonbinding agreement to discuss the possibility of (someday – maybe) signing an MOA (Memo of Agreement) which says the parties will discuss the possibility of (someday) signing an actual contract. The closest thing to a real operation Bigelow actually has going is the possibility of placing one his modules on the ISS and that is of course with NASA

            Now, that is it for me. You are going to believe whatever you want and I am not going to spend any more time debating you about erroneous versions of “commercial”.

      • William Mellberg says:

        “Commercial” space is premature because no genuine commercial market exists for it. There is neither a need nor a demand for human spaceflight on a scale that would support true private enterprise.

        This is not like the early commercial airlines. They were feeding into an existing market to carry mail, freight and passengers across the nation and around the globe. Airplanes were simply supplementing existing forms of transportation. Take air mail, as an example. Sending a letter by air was quicker than sending it by rail, just like sending a message via Western Union was quicker than sending it by Pony Express. Airplanes cut the time for businesspeople to travel from place to place, as well. And airplanes eventually replaced trains and oceanliners.

        The point is, there was an existing market, as well as a need and a demand (two of the fundamentals of marketing) for commercial aviation. No such genuine market exists for “commercial” space, other than communications satellites. The ISS is not a commercial destination. It is a government outpost.

        NASA’s primary role shouldn’t be to artificially support a faux “commercial” space industry.

        NASA’s primary role should be to explore space.

        There are some things that government can do better than the private sector. Indeed, there are some things that only government can do because there is no profit in it for private enterprise. Exploration is one of those things, and exploration can pave the way toward commercial development later on. Which is why today’s exploration costs represent an investment in tomorrow’s economic growth.

        Take Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery as an example. Or the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers …

        They charted the unexplored western United States and assessed its resources, paving the way for the railroads, the settlers and the towns that followed decades later.

        Likewise, NASA should be creating a Space Corps of Discovery to assess the Moon’s resources and evaluate our ability to live off the land on other worlds. If a pioneering lunar base (or bases) determine that the Moon’s resources have some commercial value … THEN we will see the development of TRUE commercial enterprises beyond Low Earth Orbit.

        I do not believe it is government’s role to underwrite the development of space vehicles so that millionaires and billionaires can take joy rides into space. If the private sector wants to serve that niche market, fine. I am all for that. Which is why I admire what Richard Branson is doing with Virgin Galactic. But don’t use my tax dollars to underwrite joy rides.

        An interesting comparison is the supersonic transport (SST) program that Uncle Sam funded for so long. When government funding ended, Boeing immediately pulled the plug on its 2707. Why? Because Boeing’s 2707 SST was a white elephant. There was no market to support large, costly, fuel guzzling airliners. Even though Concorde served a niche market for many years, it was an economic fiasco. British and French taxpayers were stuck with the bills so that millionaires and billionaires could fly across the Atlantic in half the time of the rest of us. That was neat. But was it fair?

        In short, NASA should be using public funds to explore and to pave the way toward the future. It should not be in the business of funding the development of commercial spacecraft for millionaires or fools who think they are going to “retire” on Mars.

        BTW, the Post Office did not fund the development of commercial aircraft. It simply awarded mail routes to private companies. Those companies had to buy their own airplanes and develop their own infrastructure (hangars, maintenance facilities, etc.). Uncle Sam merely paid for carrying mail bags from Point A to Point B. But the market potential was so great that companies like Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed funded the development of new airplanes themselves.

        Sorry for the long-winded reply, but the term “commercial” has become very misused in recent years. As a marketing major and former jetliner salesman, I wanted to shed some light on the subject.

        Bill Mellberg

        • Joe says:


          Very good points, the whole existing market point seems to be completely missed by the “New Space” community.

          We are still in the exploring (or perhaps pioneering) phase where space is concerned. In that period of any development government activity is required. The constant comparisons with the development of aviation willfully overlooks that fact.

        • Vladislaw says:

          There is a lot of markets that do not exist. Was there a market for frisbees? Or did someone take a chance. We know there is demand. Just because there is not a preexisting market does not mean entrepreneurs do not try and create new ones.

          • William Mellberg says:

            “There is [sic] a lot of markets that do not exist. Was there a market for frisbees? Or did someone take a chance. We know there is demand. Just because there is not a preexisting market does not mean entrepreneurs do not try and create new ones.”

            But Vladislaw … the Wham-O toy company did not ask for hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to pay for the development of their Frisbees. They took a chance with their own money. And if you read the history of the Frisbee, you’ll see that there was a pre-existing market for the product:


            Do you understand the difference between free enterprise and crony capitalism? Do any New Space proponents understand that difference?

            I don’t care if Wham-O spends their own money taking a risk on a new product and creating a new market. But don’t do it with my tax dollars.

            I’ve started several businesses of my own over the years. I never put my hand out to Uncle Sam to underwrite them. I stood or fell on my own … sometimes with the support of a local bank or other investors.

            You say there is a “demand” for human spaceflight. Where? Is it large enough to be self-supporting? Apparently not. Otherwise, Elon Musk wouldn’t be putting his hand out for taxpayer dollars. He’d be developing his space vehicles entirely on his own, or with the help of private capital.

            But tell me, Vladislaw … where is the MARKET for human spaceflight? How can it turn a profit? What destinations will it serve?

            Space vehicles are simply transportation vehicles designed to carry payloads (people and cargo) from Point A to Point B. Trains, planes, ships, buses and trucks all carry people and goods between various points (destinations). They are transportation vehicles. They are tools. They make commerce (trade) possible.

            So where is the “demand” that you cite for human spaceflight? Sending people and cargo to one, government-owned space outpost (the ISS) is NOT a commercial destination. That is NOT a market. It has zero relationship to the commercial aviation industry.

            That is not to say that a market won’t develop some day. But it will only come after an economic justification for space transportation becomes apparent, as was the case with the development of long-distance railroads in the United States and Canada.

            billgamesh got it right in his comments above. A lot of “Musketeers” and New Space astronaut “wannabes” are living in their own fantasylands. They apparently think they will be able to fly into space one of these days for a few thousand dollars. They envy the NASA astronauts who have already flown into space. But that is not reality. The cost of sending people to and from space will never be within the reach of average consumers during our lifetimes … or at any time in the foreseeable future.

            If it is still impossible to design and build a supersonic transport (SST) that is economical and affordable, what makes you think Elon Musk or anyone else is going to make human spaceflight affordable to average people? That promise is as hollow as the foolish talk about retiring on Mars.

            Joe also got it right in his comments above. The New Space enthusiasts do not seem to understand basic economics or markets. (Few if any of them have worked in the transportation industry.) And as Joe notes, we are still in the pioneering/exploring phase of space development.

            Let me ask you this, Vladislaw …

            Will Elon Musk or any other “commercial” space entrepreneur pay for exploratory missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond (Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s moons, etc.) to identify any potential resources that could produce a return on the investments?

            I’ll give you the answer … no.

            Because there is no profit in pure research. At least not in the near-term future.

            That is why NASA’s primary role should be to explore space and identify potential resources that could be the source of future markets and commerce. (Think Lewis & Clark … or “Star Trek.”)

            That is Reality.

      • billgamesh says:

        “I believe NASA should be developing technologies and shoveling it into the commercial sector as fast as possible so COTS can take place, Commercial Off the Shelf. NASA is never going anywhere as the last 30 years have shown.”

        Then the code word “porkonauts” as a wink and a nudge. The private space mob agenda revealed in all it’s bizarre glory. “Shovel” tax dollars into NASA so as to launder that money into the pockets of investors whose worthless companies are already using NASA services to sustain their facade. Easy money. New Space companies are the parasites ending any possibility of progress and read as the obituaries of the first space age.

        As for not going anywhere……that can change. Stealing from the treasury is the never-changing always same game. When the history books are written it will not be about the success of inferior lift rockets and tourism entrepreneurs. History will be made with a governmental decision to create a Cislunar Infrastructure using super heavy lift rockets.

        • Vladislaw says:

          Then I guess we should ban all the technology that NASA has already been shoveling into the private sector since it’s inception because that is somehow a bad thing for the American consumer.

          Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in medical therapies
          Infrared ear thermometers
          Ventricular assist device
          Ventricular assist device
          Artificial limbs
          Invisible braces
          Scratch-resistant lenses
          Space blanket

          Aircraft anti-icing systems
          Highway safety
          Improved radial tires
          Chemical detection

          Video enhancing anFire-resistant reinforcement
          Video enhancing and analysis systems
          Fire-resistant reinforcement
          Firefighting equipment

          Temper foam
          Enriched baby food
          Portable cordless vacuums
          Freeze drying
          Water purification
          Solar Cells
          Pollution remediation

          Structural analysis software
          Remotely controlled ovens
          NASA Visualization Explorer

          Powdered lubricants
          Improved mine safety
          Food safety

          • billgamesh says:

            Spin-off technology comes from “pork” according to you. Yet NASA pork is what you also ferociously criticize. You can’t have it both ways Vlad. Reality check.

      • If commercial crew services to the other planets existed then NASA would be utilizing them. But private commercial services should not be dependent on NASA and the tax payers for their existence.

        Utilizing Commercial Crew launches for missions to the ISS, for instance, is unsustainable for more than one private launch company. But utilizing Commercial Crew launches for missions to private space stations could support several private launch companies.

        NASA hasn’t traveled beyond LEO in the last 40 years because it has been– forbidden to do so! Yet there is really no evidence that trapping NASA at LEO has been beneficial to the tax payers.

        But nothing has prevented private US and international companies from developing human spacecraft to travel beyond LEO over the past 40 years except for their reluctance to invest the appropriate amount of dollars in order to do so– which is probably due to their inability to discover a business case for conducting such missions.

        Its easy to dream about future technologies but deploying them is what brings technological advancement. Allowing NASA to be a pioneering space agency again would be beneficial to private industry. Governments invented the jet plane, and private industry has substantially benefited from this invention. Governments invented space rockets and satellites, and private industry has also substantially benefited from these inventions.


        • William Mellberg says:


          For the record, Frank Whittle and Hans von Ohain developed both of their jet engines as private undertakings. In Whittle’s case, the Air Ministry showed no interest in his invention. But Whittle found investors to build and test the first British jet engines through his Power Jets enterprise. Likewise, von Ohain won support from Ernst Heinkel whose firm built and flew the Heinkel 178 (the world’s first jet aircraft) as a private venture. That said, the obvious first use of jet engines in production aircraft was for government-funded military applications.

          Bill Mellberg

  5. William Mellberg says:

    Dr. Spudis, this post really addresses Reality.

    Thank goodness!

    What a pity that Buzz Aldrin is so caught up with the Mars foolishness. Elon Musk magnifies that foolishness with his repeated claims that he plans to “retire” on Mars and send “thousands” of settlers to the Red Planet. Who on Earth would WANT to “retire” on Mars or settle on a planet that is so hostile to life as we know it? Last year’s brutally cold winter in Chicago was bad enough for me. I wouldn’t want to live on a world that is even colder and that lacks trees, grass, birds, chipmunks, supermarkets, fast food restaurants, hardware stores, running water, breathable air and everything else that we take for granted here on Earth. Moreover, who would want to live on a distant world where you could no longer enjoy real-time, two-way conversations with your friends and loved ones back on the home planet?

    Explore Mars? Yes.

    “Retire” there? No way!

    But human exploration of Mars is a long ways off, and a lot of new technologies and hardware need to be developed before we can even think about sending men and women to its surface.

    As Neil Armstrong said in his testimony before Congress four years ago, the Moon is where we should be sending humans once again. He spelled out the reasons why, including the long-term application of lunar operational experience to more distant journeys and destinations in the future (Mars, for instance). I suggest people read his statement, especially the last half …

    Neil Armstrong clearly understood that the logical next step is a return to the Moon. Armstrong’s thinking was rooted in common sense and reality.

    But few people seem to have much common sense, or a sense of reality these days.

    And too many people are willing to swallow hyperbole and embrace fantasy.

    Thank you for restoring some sanity to the debate.

    Bill Mellberg

  6. billgamesh says:

    “-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.”

    “-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.”

    And as Dr. Spudis explains, the public is not very interested in either goal. I live in downtown Seattle and at the celebration event after the superbowl win the downtown area was packed with over a hundred thousand cheering fans. The public was interested. I was born without the sports gene so I am one of those few who are mystified at the incredible amount of time, money, and energy expended on professional sports. Moonball would be profitable.

    I was however born with the gear geek gene and am fascinated by vehicles like rockets and submarines so I AM interested. As a boy in the 60’s I was somewhat familiar with the engineering state-of-the-art, national security and the political climate of the nation; as much as popular science and popular mechanics magazine, comic books, and three channels of black and white television could inform. V-8 muscle cars and Japanese motorcycles were what my generation spent their leisure time on instead of home computers and video games. The “50 somethings” in this country are where the space advocates are to be found now.

    Unfortunately the 50 somethings are distracted. We have other problems more deserving of worry than falling behind in space. The few of us who believe space is the future are divided into warring camps depending on how much misinformation and false advertising has been ingested.

    For whatever reason Dr. Rendezvous is supporting a Mars mission. Those of us who have some understanding of what going to Mars would cost and how little it would accomplish compared to establishing a Cislunar Infrastructure are not impressed.

  7. Warren Platts says:

    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….

    EDL is only a problem if you are short on propellant and have to do some major aerobraking. If you have enough propellant, it is relatively easy to do a fully propulsive landing on Mars: just do your main burn above the atmosphere, and then drop straight down at terminal velocity. To the extent that Lunar return could enable an “abundant chemical” Mars architecture, then a scaled-up version of a Lunar lander would work just fine.

    • Reusable vehicles used to transport humans to the lunar surface could also be used to land people on the Martian surface– if a heat shield is added to protect the vehicle while descending through the martian atmosphere and a ballute is used to decelerate the vehicle through the atmosphere.

      Landing Large Cargos and Crews on the Surface of Mars

    • billgamesh says:

      “EDL is only a problem if you are short on propellant-”

      Spacecraft are always “short” on propellant. Which means Dr. Spudis’ statement is true Warren.

    • billgamesh says:

      “The biggest technical challenge to a human Mars mission-”

      I would say the biggest technical challenge is heavy nuclei shielding followed by how to propel such a shield. But this has yet to be addressed because only a small number of humans have been outside the Earth’s magnetosphere and then for just a few days; there is not much data.

      At this point in time I have to go with human beings surviving best in the radiation and gravity environment they evolved in. The more radiation and the less gravity astronauts are exposed to the shorter their lifespan. Not acceptable.

  8. billgamesh says:

    Thank you for the link to Armstrong’s 2010 statement Bill.

    “In this case, a normally collegial sector of society was split in many fragments, some focused on contracts and money, some on work force and jobs, some on technical choices. All because a few
    planners, with little or no space operations experience, attempted an end run on the normal process. It has been painful to watch.”

    The term “end run” is well understood by anyone in a desperate situation. But if the situation is not desperate then why go this way? The exact chain of events and reasoning leading to the adoption of the flexible path may never be known. What is obvious is that Sidemount- the shuttle derived heavy lift vehicle- was essentially passed over in favor of the very inferior SpaceX hobby rocket.

    The most visible aspect has always been a lack of purpose. Land on the Moon; done. What’s next? Not a clue. Why? Costs too much! Our representatives never seem to have this problem when finding another overseas adventure or cold war toy to blow billions on. The end of the space age can be seen as an exit strategy into more profitable enterprises.

    Dr. Spudis has repeatedly warned of the dismantling of the nations heavy lift infrastructure while the few space representatives in congress with the jobs in their districts have fought to keep the SLS going. But that heavy lift program has to be funded if it is going to survive. The less funding it receives the slower the development and the higher the price tag prompting ever more calls for cancellation.

    If all that is to remain of the first space age is LEO tourism for billionauts then let SpaceX pay for it and spend my tax dollars on solar energy or something constructive please. A Moon base, GEO space stations, nuclear propulsion; not Mars and asteroid visits.

  9. Grand Lunar says:

    I love the caption for the photo. Illustrates the point perfectly.

    On a somewhat related note, on the NASA Spaceflight website, an article describes SpaceX’s roadmap. Among the ideas is that eventually they’ll achieve hundreds or even thousands of launches per year.

    Hasn’t this cropped up a few times before? The idea of treating spaceflight like an airline industry?

    Anyway, the points brought up in your answers, especially the one where Aldrin comments a lunar return being Apollo-like and costing hundreds of billions.

    This, I think, is the biggest issue that must be argued against in regards to lunar development.

    We need to inform people that we CAN afford to develop the moon.

    • Joe says:

      “Among the ideas is that eventually they’ll achieve hundreds or even thousands of launches per year.”

      SpaceX makes a lot of grandiose claims and then underperforms on them. In fact the more SpaceX underperforms on past claims the more grandiose their new claims become.

      A few examples:
      – SpaceX contracted or planned for 24 Falcon-9 flights through 2013, but only flew seven.
      – SpaceX lists nearly 30 flights for this year and next, yet have only flown three times in 2014, and have nearly four times more launches on the calendar for the rest of the year than they have currently been able to fly in 2014.
      – SpaceX has launched only three (of the twelve contractually called for) CRS missions but is over 77 percent into the (original) contract period. NASA has had to extend the contract period by two years so SpaceX can appear to be meeting its commitments.
      – Of the 20 mT (44,000 lbs.) SpaceX is to launch by the original CRS deadline of 2015, (now delayed to 2017), SpaceX has put only 15 percent of that—6,676 lbs into orbit.
      – Additionally, NASA has also been forced to give SpaceX a year extension to meet its CCiCap (“commercial” crew) milestones.

      So it would be best to take SpaceX “ideas” with a grain (or perhaps a block) of salt.

      • Grand Lunar says:

        I’m taking it with several kilograms of salt.

        Musk is seriously overselling himself in these matters.

        Too bad people fall for this act.

        I think you’ve found a correlation between SpaceX’s claims verse their performance.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-eventually they’ll achieve hundreds or even thousands of launches per year.”

      While the Soviets launched Soyuz close to 50 times a year in the late 70’s, the space shuttle never had the resources required to accomplish this and in addition the orbiter was a maintenance monster slowing the existing schedule down. A cargo version of the shuttle was proposed from the start and with 8 flights a year would have put close to 500 tons a year into orbit. But even this would have been a rocket to nowhere (going in endless circles in LEO is a perfect description of going nowhere). Attaching the most meaning to a single number representing launches per year into Low Earth Orbit is an advertising ploy.

      For a successful human space flight program the launch vehicle empty core stage itself is the main payload and the size of this structure most meaningful. The wet workshop is the essential spaceship crew compartment required to go anywhere in the solar system. While a dry workshop Skylab went up the destination should have been lunar orbit and might have been except for the space radiation hazard. Since even the SLS core stage is slightly small for a crew compartment with the necessary mass of water for shielding, we have no readily available wet workshop option yet.

      The most important reason to have a space station in lunar orbit is because lunar ice finally makes building a true spaceship practical. A “spaceship” defined as having heavy nuclei shielding and artificial gravity. Such a vessel is not possible to build and launch from Earth orbit because the water shielding is so much more expensive to bring up and the nuclear propulsion to push the shield is not acceptable inside the Earth’s magnetosphere.

      A spaceship is always the best space station and a shielded rotating space station in lunar orbit only requires a nuclear engine to become a spaceship. Compare what can be accomplished with a government funded program of Super Heavy Lift Vehicles to a thousand hobby rocket payloads in Low Earth Orbit and there is the immediate question of “why?”; why bother with small rockets? All the smoke and mirrors and carnival tactics cannot hide the huge holes in the New Space plans for fuel depots and retirement communities on Mars.

      • Grand Lunar says:

        “A cargo version of the shuttle was proposed from the start and with 8 flights a year would have put close to 500 tons a year into orbit. But even this would have been a rocket to nowhere…”

        Depends on what it is you’re putting into orbit.

        Such an HLV would be a good match for the Cislunar Next concept.

        “A spaceship is always the best space station and a shielded rotating space station in lunar orbit only requires a nuclear engine to become a spaceship. ”

        I know this is stating the obvious, but you also need sufficient propellant as well to give you enough of a delta-V budget to accomplish your mission.
        That’s why you still have to watch just how much your habitat masses, regardless of where it is you get your propellant from.

        • billgamesh says:

          You are taking my sentence out of context; any rocket to Low Earth Orbit is a “rocket to nowhere.”

          It is the destination that has meaning. If your destination is a LEO tourist club then the toxic dragon is going somewhere. If your destination is one or more of the moons of the gas giants then the hobby rocket is worthless.

          For human beings to travel anywhere Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (BELO) I maintain a massive radiation shield will be required. The “Delta-V budget” for such a spaceship would require nuclear energy. Your caution to “watch the mass” when a true shielded rotating spaceship starts at several thousand tons is……redundant.

  10. William Mellberg says:

    “Among the ideas is that eventually they’ll achieve hundreds or even thousands of launches per year. Hasn’t this cropped up a few times before? The idea of treating spaceflight like an airline industry?”

    Again, where is the market to support that sort of launch schedule? It does not exist. And it will not exist in any of our lifetimes. Which is why the propaganda from New Space proponents comparing “commercial” space to commercial aviation is just that … propaganda.

    Moreover, as Joe points out, SpaceX has had a problem getting just a handful of its rockets off the ground. Musk is long on hype, but short on performance.

    Is it any wonder the USAF does not want to depend on SpaceX to launch its vital payloads? Yet, Musk is suing his ‘competitors’ because he isn’t getting a share of that taxpayer-funded ‘market.’

    Elon Musk reminds me, in a way, of Howard Hughes. Note this Wikipedia entry about the Hughes XF-11 …

    “On the urgent recommendation of Colonel Elliott Roosevelt, who led a team surveying several reconnaissance aircraft proposals in September 1943, General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, chief of the U.S. Army Air Forces, ordered 100 F-11s for delivery beginning in 1944. In this, Arnold overrode the strenuous objections of the USAAF Materiel Command, which held that Hughes did not have the industrial capacity or proven track record to deliver on his promises. (Materiel Command did succeed in mandating that the F-11 be made of aluminum, unlike its wooden D-2 predecessor.) Arnold made the decision ‘much against my better judgment and the advice of my staff’ after consultations with the White House. The order was cancelled on 29 May 1945, but Hughes was allowed to complete and deliver the two prototypes.”

    Note the part about no proven “track record to deliver on his promises.” Doesn’t that describe SpaceX and Elon Musk?

    Mind you, my father worked for Hughes Aircraft for many years, and I know two gentlemen from Avro Canada (now in their 90s) who worked directly with Howard Hughes. They both will tell you that Hughes was “a genius.” But they also acknowledge how difficult he was to work for because of his eccentric personality. Which is why the USAAF shied away from using Hughes as a major supplier early on. Of course, under Pat Hyland’s guidance starting in the mid-50s, Hughes Aircraft became tremendously successful producing missiles, helicopters, radar systems, communication satellites and spacecraft such as the Surveyor series.

    SpaceX needs to prove itself. Perhaps they need a ‘Pat Hyland’ at the helm — someone with a proven record of engineering leadership in the field. A successful track record is a lot more meaningful than unfulfilled promises and overblown hype, especially in the aerospace industry. Public relations consultants and corporate lobbyists are no substitute for actual results.

    • Joe says:

      The comparison of Musk to Hughes is interesting.

      This will sound strange to anyone who has read my previous posts, but when the commercial cargo program started I was a supporter of it and especially SpaceX

      At that time their plan was to develop the Falcon 9 with a set of parachutes that would allow the stage to be recovered down range. While the possibility of re-using ay least some of the first stage components (if economical) was mentioned the main rationale was to examine/evaluate the stage components to be able to modify the designs for greater reliability, manufacturability and safety. This could allow the development of an expendable vehicle that would be both cheaper and more reliable in addition to being easier to human rate.

      It was an ambitious plan, but reasonable and potentially very valuable. Somehow this morphed in to the current SpaceX “plan” complete with: (1) Falcon 9 stages that can be reused 1,000 times with one day turnaround and no refurbishment, (2) Mars Colonial Transports to support an 800,000 population Martian Colony by 2027 and (3) Now 1,000’s of flights/year.

      It is at least possible that this change was caused by Musk’s “eccentric” desire to be the object of a personality cult. At least in that, he is succeeding.

      • billgamesh says:

        “-the main rationale was to examine/evaluate the stage components to be able to modify the designs for greater reliability, manufacturability and safety.”

        I have read the SRB’s on the shuttle cost more to reuse than throw away. But though they did not break even recovering them eventually lead to over 200 flawless firings in a row of a heavy lift booster; a remarkable achievement. Yet the hobby rocket is hyped as somehow being superior.

        The miracle of public relations.

        • Joe says:

          The cost of re-using vs. building new SRBs has always been continuous, but it is fair to say the savings of re-use were (at best) minimal.

          But, the fact that the re-use (and subsequent examination/evaluation) did make it possible to increase the reliability of the SRB’s illustrates the point I was making. If SpaceX had followed their original plans they could be making the same sort of progress right now with the Falcon 9 first stage. Instead they are supposedly pursuing re-usability and as a result have yet to recover a first stage.

  11. billgamesh says:

    I would like to thank Dr. Spudis for allowing me to express my opinions and explain some of my views on space hardware design.

    I mentioned in a previous comment that the SLS was not quite big enough for easy use as a “wet workshop.” Mr. Brown popularized the concept of empty fuel stages that astronauts would move all the necessary equipment into after using up the wet propellants; a wet workshop. Skylab was an empty stage already mostly converted before flight, so it was a “dry workshop.” It is only a coincidence that I seem to keep connecting the term wet workshop with lunar water, which was discovered decades after Von Braun.

    The only guaranteed arrangement for creating effective cosmic ray shields as specified by expert Eugene Parker is 5 meters (14 and a half feet) of water massing about 500 tons around a small capsule. While a empty rocket stage with a double hull of about 50 feet providing a 20 foot inner cylinder would be desirable a ten foot inner cylinder with around 40 feet total diameter would be the minimum. We need a bigger SLS core stage reconfigured as a “cosmic ray workshop.”

    This large mass of water is in one sense the “ocean of space” President Kennedy and so many others have spoken of; I do not believe we are going anywhere without this shield. And indeed water is transparent and the stars will be seen through windows in both sides of these future radiation shields.

    Just as we do not have a ready-made spaceship cabin we also have no ready-made nuclear engine to push this Moon-water shield around the solar system. And while a cosmic ray workshop is straight forward enough with the lunar ice being a huge enabler, nuclear energy to propel the shield is a far more difficult resource to take advantage of. A survey of nuclear propulsion candidates shows three possibilities:

    1. Nuclear Pulse Propulsion. This is the most simple path yet the most difficult because pulse engines are essentially metal plates that only become efficient when they mass in the thousands of tons. H-bombs can then push this plate and several thousand tons of payload stacked on it to anywhere in the solar system at high speed. The problem is of course…..the plate. The “Medusa” is a parachute stand-in for the plate in a lower powered system that might work as an interim.

    2. Nuclear Thermal Rocket. These engines have already been built and ground tested. Unfortunately they are only about twice as efficient as a chemical rocket engine. Pathetic.

    3. Fission Fragment Rocket. The same isotope in smoke detectors allow this small engine design to be the dream come true of any spacecraft designer. Unfortunately Americium 242 is so rare it is essentially the “unobtanium” of science fiction. Ideally a reactor design using lunar thorium might be able to supply this fuel but that would be a brand new nuclear industry from scratch and decades away. However I believe Aluminum was once very expensive and there is a great deal of plutonium laying around this planet that we need to get rid of so some new nuclear research might solve the problem.

    I have speculated that some kind of interim vehicle with a smaller fission plate brought in sections or slices from Earth or using a parachute might be a quick spaceship but in my view of reality only lunar underground factories are going to eventually be able to manufacture these engines in large numbers and open up the solar system to human exploration. But what is even more important is these same engines can lift from the surface of the Moon immense masses of solar energy arrays to power Earth from space. And finally this leads to microwave beamed energy propulsion and the holy grail; cheap lift and a ticket to a space colony.

  12. Robert Clark says:

    Dr. Spudis perhaps you could mention to the Moon Express team a possible add-on to their Google Lunar X-Prize entry. At the Human2Mars conference in April was mentioned a scientific instrument that Explore Mars, Inc. was developing called Exolance:

    ExoLance: Shooting Darts at Mars to Find Life.
    JUL 17, 2014 01:40 PM ET // BY ERIC NIILER

    It would be great if this could be tested in a real space environment before trying it on Mars. I thought one of the GLXP entrants would provide an excellent opportunity. The most intriguing areas on the Moon are the poles. Since Moon Express intends to land there it would provide a good carrier craft for the Exolance. Also Exolance would provide an alternative source to retrieve data in case the Moon Express lander does not land successfully.
    Imagine if Exolance could prove the large amounts of water, perhaps even pure ice, subsurface on the Moon. Imagine if it could confirm the tentative detections of valuable minerals at the poles suggested by the LCROSS mission.
    That would give further support for the idea we must return to the Moon if we want to explore the rest of the solar system.

    Bob Clark

Comments are closed.