Dreaming or Doing?

Asteroid impacts the Earth, a "planet killer."  Think you're going to move this puppy with solar electric power?

Asteroid impacts the Earth, a “planet killer.” Think you’re going to move this puppy with solar electric power?

As we continue to flounder along without a strategic direction for space, there are developments to note.  The closing date for the submittal of white papers to the National Academies Study on Human Spaceflight has come and gone.  Just under 200 submittals are available for viewing on the NAS study web site.  As one might expect, they run the gamut from well-reasoned and carefully articulated essays to a few “creative” suggestions apparently submitted in large part for their amusement value.

I didn’t do a statistical study but the bulk of the serious submissions seem to have two distinct themes running through them.  First, setting goals – and in particular, goals of destination – is seen as important.  The idea that we should poke along “developing technology” and then decide to go somewhere at a later date does not find strong support in most of the papers.  Second, there are two camps in regard to a national level of effort, the larger one claiming that the civil space budget should be increased to a level commensurate with those specific writers’ proposed goals and a minority view suggesting that understanding what you are trying to accomplish is more important than the amount of money spent.  I find myself in the latter category.

Interestingly, these themes are also evident in the current drama playing out in the House Space Subcommittee over the new authorization bill for NASA.  The Republican majority released their draft authorization three weeks ago to howls of protest.  It features a sizeable cut in NASA’s budget from the administration’s request (in line with the current sequestration numbers) but is most notable for requiring a return to the Moon and for discarding the proposed “haul asteroid” mission.  An alternative bill produced by the minority augments that funding $1.235 billion, makes a human Mars mission the main goal (within 15 years, no less) and leaves the Moon/asteroid choice to “technical experts at NASA.”  Given that the GOP controls the House, the final authorization will likely look more like the majority version than its alternative.  How this will be reconciled (or not) with the yet-to-be-revealed Senate authorization remains to be seen.  Most likely, there will be no reconciliation and no new authorization – another continuing resolution for NASA is probable.

So in Congress, just as in the submitted NAS white papers, we see a corresponding set of conflicting visions – which goals to pursue and how much money to spend.  Interestingly, neither side of the House subcommittee seems enamored with the haul asteroid mission.  This development comes just as the agency begins its full court press to “sell” the concept to Congress and to the public.  Most notably, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote an editorial in The Hill, declaring the supposed benefits of the asteroid mission.  He claims three: 1) conduct a “deep space” mission to give the agency experience in these operations; 2) allow the astronauts to practice “potential resource utilization” of the asteroid; and 3) “inform future efforts” at asteroid interdiction, i.e., to deflect a hypothetical Earth-crossing impactor from colliding with us at some distant date.  Are any of these alleged benefits real?

Certainly experience with people in “deep space” operations (in this case, beyond low Earth orbit) is desirable.  But such experience is also gained by return to the Moon, voyages to the L-points, NEO rendezvous, or missions to the martian moons, none of which require an asteroid to be procured as a target beforehand.  As for “resource utilization,” I applaud the agency’s newly found interest in this topic, having argued myself repeatedly for its importance in creating new space faring capabilities.  However, as a target for resource utilization, a captured 3-meter asteroid placed in lunar orbit is not a rich source of anything in particular.  Volatile-rich asteroids are known to exist, but are not common and it is not clear than a small object of appropriate composition exists in a suitable orbit for capture.

Even if one is found, asteroid water is not like lunar polar ice.  Water in these primitive asteroids is found in a chemically bound form (in clay minerals) and is not easily extracted.  The clays must be identified, separated and processed to break the chemical bonds that hold the water molecules in their mineral structures.  Such processing isn’t fully understood conceptually and will likely be difficult to accomplish in microgravity (typical industrial chemical processing requires thermal convection and density separation, both dependent on the presence of gravity).  Moreover, the Orion spacecraft is neither a good platform for such experimentation (lacking adequate laboratory facilities and sufficient electrical power) nor can it loiter proximate to the asteroid for extended periods of time.  At best, a few rock samples might be collected for return to Earth for later analysis and experimentation on resource processing.  Oh, by the way, we can get a head start on that work right now – we already have several hundred pounds of meteorites of suitable composition in collections right here on Earth.

The last rationale for this mission, as Bolden describes it, is to help us prepare for future asteroid collision interdiction.  One wonders exactly how this mission contributes to that goal.  Certainly the act of moving an asteroid is relevant to deflection efforts – but we already know that a force applied to a mass in space will accelerate it (Newton’s law), so there really isn’t any question about the basic physics.  There are issues with the physical structure of asteroids, with a porous, incoherent rubble pile being more difficult to manage than a solid, dense rock.  But we don’t need to retrieve an asteroid to make this determination.  In any event, an Earth-threatening object would be much larger (multiple kilometers) than the asteroid brought back in this effort (a few meters), so the technique of “bagging it and moving it with solar electric thrusters” is not really relevant to the problem of asteroid interdiction.  So how will this “haul asteroid” mission help us protect the Earth?

The whole subject of planetary defense has a somewhat nebulous rationale.  Despite the recent bolide collision in Russia, which spawned a number of quasi-hysterical press reports, the risk of a life-altering asteroid collision is actually quite low. Check out this diagram from The Economist – your risk of being killed by an asteroid impact is roughly 1 in 75 million.  For comparison, your risk of being struck by lightning is about 1 in 500,000, of being attacked by a shark is 1 in 11 million, and being killed in a terrorist attack is about 1 in 20 million.  You are actually more likely to die in an asteroid impact than you are to win the Powerball lottery (1 in 175 million).  Is it logical or prudent to make asteroid defense an integral part of NASA’s mission, given that its likelihood is of such low probability? 

One could argue that focusing on terrestrial volcanism is more appropriate, as the chance of a supervolcano eruption of Yellowstone (which would definitely change the global climate pattern) is about 1 in 730,000, or roughly 100 times more likely than an asteroid impact.  But that’s relative to another extremely unlikely event.

Bolden’s attempt to justify the haul asteroid mission is unconvincing.  On inspection, none of his supposed benefits are either attainable or (in fact) benefits.  This mission concept merely poses as a space accomplishment.  It masks the basic fact that we are an Earth-bound species and given this mindset, are likely to remain so indefinitely.  There is no sense of creating a permanent, enabling space infrastructure that permits us to imagine and accomplish many different and varied types of missions.  Instead, we continue to fantasize about future “space first” stunts, rather than actually doing what is possible and useful.  Some would dream indefinitely about cities on Mars rather than actually realizing a true permanent transportation system in cislunar space.  The dream of the impossible trumps the building of the achievable.  No wonder we have a floundering and dysfunctional space program.

We constantly hear the lament that the American people have lost interest in space and have stopped dreaming about going into space.  Perhaps some people have grown tired of waiting decade upon decade for their space agency and elected officials to devise and fund a realistic program that moves from dreaming to doing – from flags and footprints to building a permanent infrastructure – a program that actually moves outward, one that the American people recognize will finally include them.

Previous posts on impacts, asteroid missions and space resources:

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

Cataclysmic Events on the Moon

The Moon, Asteroids and Space Resources

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

This entry was posted in space policy, space technology, Space transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to Dreaming or Doing?

  1. billgamesh says:

    “the risk of a life-altering asteroid collision is actually quite low”

    The risk is always low until it happens. It is a convenient and happy out for anyone who, for whatever reason, does not want the problem addressed. On the scale of geologic time, an extinction level impact is in practical terms a random event. Once every 100 million years does not mean it happens at 100 million year intervals. It means it will happen sometime within that 100 million years. When? If it is tomorrow we will go the way of the dinosaur. It is just Russian Roulette with more bullets.
    I have never accepted the interval deception and consider it part of another feature of human existence called “the optimism bias.” Associating a multi-megaton airburst over Russia with the term “quasi-hysterical” is an example of this bias.

    The risk of any number of natural disasters over the last couple centuries was considered “quite low” and that did not stop them from happening. I could spend a half hour digging citations for a couple dozen but I will just list one.


    I do not support the NASA asteroid mission but downplaying the asteroid threat due to the obvious deception being perpetrated by claiming it has some planetary protection value is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  2. Grand Lunar says:

    It seems Bolden just wants to play along with Obama’s “goal” of reaching an asteroid, no matter how small the actual benifit.

    As for asteroid deflection, it seems the focus is on “city-killers”, like the 1908 event. At least, that’s how I interpret what I’ve seen so far.
    Even so, probes can be more effective with these objects.

    The main block to overcome is the attitude that both Obama and people like Dr. Aldrin have given the public: the idea that we’ve been to the moon before, so we don’t need to go again.
    They don’t realize the true treasure of lunar return.

  3. Warren Platts says:

    Despite all the talk about extracting water from asteroids, AFAIK nobody has actually tried to extract water from an actual meteorite. It has often been compared to extracting water from a sidewalk. E.g., if you put a chunk of portland cement in a microwave, it will start to steam.

    If only it were so easy!

    The problem is that concrete has a relatively pure mineral content, but asteroids do not. If a chunk of a CM asteroid (the Planetary Resources folks have evidently given up on type CI asteroids–the best ones–because they finally acknowledge they’re too rare) is heated, the good clay minerals will react with all the other junk, producing all sorts of volatile compounds, but no water. You would either have to separate the clay minerals first, or else somehow chemically produce water from stuff like CO and H2S.

  4. Warren Platts says:

    So Paul, no mention of SLS. What’s in the tea leaves for that?

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I’m not psychic. SLS will probably limp along. Anyway, the whole project is designed merely to keep a capability alive, not to build a working space launch system.

      • Joe says:

        “However, as a target for resource utilization, a captured 3-meter asteroid placed in lunar orbit is not a rich source of anything in particular.”


        If I recall correctly the original Keck Study predicted a 7-meter 500 ton asteroid. At the time I said that was too heavy for the size vehicle being discussed. If that size has already been reduced to three meters before they have even gotten to detailed design, look for the asteroid to get smaller still. It is eventually going to be not “haul asteroid” but “haul basketball” (immediately before it is cancelled, of course)


        The SLS (and the Orion) will likely continue to limp along underfunded with no clear direction as to what they should be doing. The same will be true of the robotics program and even (dare it be said) the subsidies for commercial crew.

        Just a question. Does that prospect make you happy?

        • Robert Clark says:

          “However, as a target for resource utilization, a captured 3-meter asteroid placed in lunar orbit is not a rich source of anything in particular.”

          Has it been acknowledged that the selected asteroid will be reduced in size to only 3 meters?

          Bob Clark

          • Paul Spudis says:

            Has it been acknowledged that the selected asteroid will be reduced in size to only 3 meters?

            Double that figure — I don’t care. It’s still a poor source of materials, not to mention that you still have no facilities to process any of it.

          • Joe says:

            At a presentation at JSC a few weeks ago Administrator Bolden said about the Asteroid retrieval mission: (1) The Asteroid would likely be significantly smaller than the 7 Meter/500 Tons of the Keck study. (2) The initial major challenge would be to be able to find and track an asteroid small enough to attempt recovery. (3) While returning the smaller asteroid to lunar orbit would remain a goal, the mission would be considered successful if it could be substantiated that the asteroids course had been altered.

            Just to be clear I was not in the meeting myself, but a civil servant friend was. I have known this individual for decades they are very honest and very precise. I also asked follow up questions to assure I understood what they were telling me correctly. That is an accurate synopsis of what was said.

            To the best of my knowledge no specific size was given only smaller, but given that the Asteroid capture vehicle (according to the Keck study) would be launched on a single Atlas V 551 (maximum LEO payload 29.4 tons). That means that the initial vehicle mass in LEO would be about 6% of the asteroid at a maximum. Using well understood hypergolic fuel for its RCS system it would need to expend no more than 450 kg in propellant (or about 0.09% of the asteroid mass) to completely negate the roll/pitch/yaw of the Asteroid. To put it politely that would be quite a challenge. A reduction in target mass by a significant amount is to be expected.

  5. Crash Davis says:

    Anyway, the whole project is designed merely to keep a capability alive, not to build a working space launch system.

    Paul, not one of your finest postings. Don’t let your frustration with current space policy cloud your comments and perspective. Please expand on this if you truly believe your comments.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I’ve discussed the origins of SLS in these posts:



      Because all of Constellation was terminated by the current administration in spring 2010 without any proposed replacement, Congress was concerned about the loss of American human spaceflight capability. It had been proposed to “study” the problem of heavy lift (whether it was needed and if so, what kind), but given that they had been blindsided by the White House twice already (once with the stacked deck Augustine report and then again with the President’s speech at KSC in April, 2010), Congress did not trust the administration to conduct this study fairly or objectively. Dusting off the specs for America’s previous HLV system, Congressional staff came up with a Saturn V-class vehicle as a logical way to pick up the threads and the authorization kept cislunar space as the target objective. This was in the NASA Authorization of 2010, the one under which we currently operate.

      Because the specific goals and possible missions of Orion/SLS are so nebulous, my opinion is that Congress continues to fund it solely as a way to keep a technical engineering capability operational and available until such time that sanity can be restored to our national space policy. They are not stupid — they know that Orion/SLS will likely cost more operationally than NASA can afford. They hope that by the time it is designed, built and made operational, a sane strategic direction will have emerged. They could be wrong, but I give them credit for trying.

  6. billgamesh says:

    “Is it logical or prudent to make asteroid defense an integral part of NASA’s mission, given that its likelihood is of such low probability?”

    Was it logical and prudent to put stronger doors on airline cockpits? The answer is yes (now) but the chances of a 911 were considered such a low probability the airlines would not spend the money. We live in a very different world today because of that kind of optimistic thinking.

    If not a civil space agency then NASA should form a branch agency using DOD funding with the express purpose of building nuclear powered, propelled, and armed interceptors that can deflect impact threats. If Europe and Asia want in then let them- they have nukes and are invited to the party.

    SLS may not have to “limp along” if such an agency is created; the escape tower and Orion capsule make it the best way to transport fissionable material to where it can be assembled for weapons, propulsion, and power, tested, and launched on interceptor missions. That place is of course the Moon. There is no place else to do it.
    If anyone doubts the reasons for manned space flight then consider all the Mars probes that have gone bad and the consequences of failing to deflect an extinction level impact threat.

    If there is any mission that needs a human crew……..

    To send a crew requires radiation shielding and that shielding is on the Moon in the form of water derived from lunar ice.

    If people were submitting “white papers” as jokes I guess I should have submitted mine on “Water and Bombs.”


  7. Grand Lunar says:

    SLS is set to pass it’s PRD at the end of July, and with no “red risks”.

    I believe it may fly. Question is, what is the mission?
    It seems a good match for an HLV for the Cislunar Next plan.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Indeed the core SLS capability of about 70 metric tons is adequate for lunar return, if the architecture is re-drawn a bit. The main concern about SLS is its flight rate; at a flight rate of one mission every two years, it will probably be too expensive to operate.

      If we had built Shuttle side-mount, we would have had an operational 70 mT HLV today or within a year or so. But that’s water under the bridge.

  8. Robert Clark says:

    The current administration cancelled Constellation because it was hugely expensive. My opinion is the primary reason of the huge cost of the Constellation program was because of the desire to make such a huge lander in the Altair. It was 3 times the size of the Apollo lunar lander.
    It was understandable NASA wanted to go beyond Apollo in producing the Constellation program by making it larger, i.e., “Apollo on steroids”. But there is another way to go beyond Apollo and that is by making it so low cost that you could have a sustained presence on and just importantly sustained flights to the Moon.
    In response to a question about returning to the Moon, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said restarting the Altair would cost in the range of $10 billion. This indicates NASA is still operating under, and basing their policy decisions on, the assumption any return to the Moon must be hugely expensive. It is important to disabuse NASA of that notion.
    First, a lunar lander does not have to be as big as the Altair. This is obviously true since the Apollo lander was one-third the size. To reduce costs even further I recommend adapting an already existing stage. There is research now in using a Centaur upper stage as the lander. This would just require adding horizontal thrusters for horizontal landing.
    Using also hydrolox Earth departure stages(s), this could transport SpaceX Dragon or NASA SEV (with heat shield) capsules to and from the Moon using a single launch of the Falcon Heavy or SLS. Then unmanned tests flights for a lunar return could be mounted by the 2015 first test launch of the Falcon Heavy or 2017 first test launch of the SLS.

    Bob Clark

    • Paul Spudis says:

      The current administration cancelled Constellation because it was hugely expensive

      No it didn’t — since when has cost ever been a serious impediment to anything this administration does? It cancelled Constellation because: 1) it was “Bush’s” program; and 2) they don’t like human spaceflight. They replaced the VSE with (literally) nothing. It was Congress that created SLS to keep the program alive.

      Constellation may have had budgetary problems, but all of them were fixable — and without massive increases in budget. Augustine was told about this and ignored it. Then the administration used the Augustine report as a “rationale” to terminate the program.

      • Robert Clark says:

        We’ll agree to disagree on that one. Cost does matter for things it views as low priority, same as for any administration. Plans for, say, doubling NASA’s budget would go nowhere, in any administration.

        Bob Clark

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Who said anything about “doubling the NASA budget”? Augustine claimed that a $3 B per year increase would “solve” Constellation problems, but my point was that other options were presented to them that required little or no increase in budget and these options were ignored.

          • billgamesh says:

            I have read so many damning comments about Constellation you would think it was the most flagrant waste of tax dollars in the history of mankind. It was actually a low dollar project compared to many cold war toys. It seems to me they told Griffin to go to the Moon and he came up with the best architecture to do it. He used shuttle legacy components and a separate crew and cargo vehicle with a powerful escape system for the crew vehicle and a lander able to land more then a couple astronauts and a golf cart. He was doing his job but you would think he is the anti-christ the way the private space crowd vilifies him.

            The howls of protest that it was too expensive do not change the fact that Constellation was designed to accomplish the mission; if you want to play you gotta pay. If I was directed to build a Moon rocket and not given the money to do it I would have counted on the need to go inspiring a higher level of funding instead of refusing and being fired. Did not work for him though.

            All the wailing and gnashing of teeth was simply the space clown wannabes reacting in their typical fashion against anything that is not advertised by SpaceX.

    • billgamesh says:

      “There is research now in using a Centaur upper stage as the lander. This would just require adding horizontal thrusters for horizontal landing.”

      No, I am afraid it would require more than just adding thrusters; centaur is an eggshell. It was suggested putting it in the shuttle cargo bay and the senior astronauts called it a “bomb” and threatened to resign.

      • Robert Clark says:

        They said the same about the original Atlas rocket that sent John Glenn to orbit, also of pressure-stabilized design.
        However, it turns out that you don’t even need it to be as weight optimized as the Centaur.The upper stage of the Delta IV Medium, which does not use the pressure-stabilized design, would also work.

        Bob Clark

        • Joe says:


          The article to which you originally linked is curious. First it says the following:

          “Zegler described a fundamental modernization of the vehicle, including eliminating toxic hypergolic fuels in favor of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The stage’s plumbing would be simplified, and many components and systems would be replaced by ones that are lighter and more efficient. The stage would also recapture waste heat and reuse it to improve energy efficiency.”

          Then it says:

          “A key element of the Centaur IVF is a new engine to replacing the aging and expensive RL-10. ULA is working with XCOR to develop a new propulsion system based on the technologies that the small Mojave company has developed for its Lynx space plane.”

          I understand the motive for “New Space” proponents to support such a (supposed) development, however there are problems with the narrative.

          First of all the first paragraph above would comprise and entirely new stage. They can call it Centaur if they choose, but it would have virtually nothing to do with the existing Centaur.

          Then there is the denigration of the RL-10. Anybody who is familiar with that engine would laugh at it being called “aging and expensive” (you might want to check its history as the engine of choice for the reusable DC-X before simply accepting anything you read – the DC-X actually flew). Also it is a “hydrogen and liquid oxygen” engine, which makes the article even more questionable.

          The rest of the stuff about Masten Space Systems using an existing Centaur (presumably using the “aging and expensive RL-10” to substitute for the entirely new stage to verify performance is beyond parody. But they manage by saying: “The vehicle would be launched to the moon as a payload aboard the planned 2017 flight test of NASA’s new heavy-lift Space Launch System, he said.” So they would like to use the much (New Space) hated SLS to launch their kluge.

          If it were not so sad that anyone believes this bravo sierra, it would be hilarious.

          • Robert Clark says:

            The RL-10 was first developed in the 50’s and for its size it still is an expensive engine. So there is research on upgrading it such as with the RL-60 engine.

            The RL-10’s though by this point are highly tested and are still a good choice for saving on development costs over entirely new engines. NASA for instance is considering a version of the upper stage to be used with the Block II version of the SLS that uses RL-10 engines instead of the J-2X:

            SLS prepares for PDR – Evolution eyes Dual-Use Upper Stage.
            June 1, 2013 by Chris Bergin

            I like the idea of using methane for in-space and lander stages. It offers better Isp then kerosene or hyperbolic fuels so results in lighter stages, but it’s not as low temperature as hydrogen so is easier for longer storage times.

            There has not been a fielded methane stage though making it harder to make comparisons to existing stages as to its advantages.

            Bob Clark

        • billgamesh says:

          I think balloon tanks are ingenious and have nothing against the original Atlas or Centaur- I just doubt they are appropriate for a lander. The LR-10 keeps coming up in discussions about what engines a lander would use- and what fuel. My only problem is with the liquid hydrogen as a propellant. It might be a little too much of a stretch- like lithium batteries in the dreamliner. Too bad they did not stick with developing a methane burning version. Some money is being spent on ZBO (zero boil-off systems) and it could work for the short trip to the Moon. But…..it will cost more.

          There is no cheap.

  9. “In any event, an Earth-threatening object would be much larger (multiple kilometers) than the asteroid brought back in this effort (a few meters), so the technique of “bagging it and moving it with solar electric thrusters” is not really relevant to the problem of asteroid interdiction.”

    A city threatening object could be much smaller. It takes a lot less delta V to deflect a rock than park it in lunar orbit, so thrusters capable of parking a 7 meter rock could likely deflect a Tunguska or Chelyabinsk sized rock.

    So yes, such an effort would be relevant to asteroid interdiction.

    “the risk of a life-altering asteroid collision is actually quite low. ”

    If a Chelyabinsk or Tunguska rock were to come along once a century, that’s often enough to make deflection worthwhile.

    The likelihood of a city killing rock is a lot higher than a Yellowstone eruption or a Chicxulub impact. And they’re much more preventable.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      A city threatening object could be much smaller. It takes a lot less delta V to deflect a rock than park it in lunar orbit, so thrusters capable of parking a 7 meter rock could likely deflect a Tunguska or Chelyabinsk sized rock

      It’s not simply a question of “delta-v” — it’s the entire “bag it and thrust it” approach whose relevance I question, especially for asteroids of larger size, which are relevant to planetary defense (a 7 m rock isn’t).

      If a Chelyabinsk or Tunguska rock were to come along once a century, that’s often enough to make deflection worthwhile.

      Nobody died in either of those two events. Even if mitigation were shown to be certain, the cost effectiveness of it must still pass muster. Your judgement of it as “worthwhile” is an opinion, not a documented fact.

    • billgamesh says:

      “So yes, such an effort would be relevant to asteroid interdiction.”

      No it would not. You are not doing the cause of planetary protection any favors supporting the asteroid mission. It has nothing to do with deflection. They are making stuff up to try and get support. Don’t fall for it.

  10. billgamesh says:

    “Even if mitigation were shown to be certain, the cost effectiveness of it must still pass muster. Your judgement of it as “worthwhile” is an opinion, not a documented fact.”

    This might sound bad but…..I do not care about city killers at all. Even something big enough to cause a temporary shift in the climate for a year or two. Not important in the big scheme of things.

    But a dinosaur killer detected a couple months out is a completely different matter. If we had a spaceship ready to launch from the Moon or already in space with a couple thousand megatons of bombs we would stand a better chance of not going extinct. And it just so happens that the same devices used in nuclear pulse propulsion also work for impact deflection. What is the Latin wording for “Explore and Defend”? That would be a good motto for NASA’s branch agency tasked with planetary defense.

    I have to agree with Dr. Spudis on the cost effectiveness- with the qualification that a dinosaur killer would be worth deflecting and I am sure he agrees.

  11. Grand Lunar says:

    I’ve been trying to figure out just why it’s so costly to operate. Is it because of the redesigned and new elements?
    Or something else?

    • Paul Spudis says:

      I assume that you are talking about SLS. It’s mostly a question of flight rate — current plans indicate a flight rate of once every two years. The problem is that you have large recurring costs (the “standing army” at the Cape and elsewhere) that must be maintained, even though you are not launching anything at the moment. Thus, the SLS as a launch system is expensive. If the flight rate were to be two per year, SLS becomes much more cost-effective.

      • Robert Clark says:

        The latest news is that the flight rate might be as low as once every four years:

        Tooling, Processes Coming Together For ‘Affordable’ Space Launch System.
        By Dan Leone | Jun. 28, 2013
        SLS is to make its maiden flight in 2017, when it will carry an empty Orion crew capsule to near-Moon space and back. Another flight would follow in 2021 and, depending on factors both technical and political, could see a crew of astronauts travel to a captured asteroid NASA wants to redirect to a high lunar orbit using a yet-to-be-built robotic spacecraft.
        Notionally, SLS would next fly in 2025, giving the rocket a launch rate of once every four years.


        Bob Clark

        • Joe says:

          And as has been mentioned numerous times that is because the current NASA political leadership wants to make the SLS look as bad as possible.

          The Current Administration never wanted the SLS and is trying to undercut it in every way possible.

          • billgamesh says:

            If we flew the shuttles eight times in one year with the maintenance nightmare of the orbiters to deal with we can easily manage 6 or 8 SLS launches a year.

            Send the empty upper stages to orbit the Moon and when the time comes fill them with water and you have shielded spaceship crew compartments ready for nuclear propulsion.

            Building true spaceships capable of interplanetary travel is a feature of a real space program- which we seem to have no plans for at all.

            It is not hard to figure out why the Augustine commission crippled the U.S. space program; why exchange the easy money of making cold war toys for the hard money of spaceships?

            There is no informed populace to vote for it and thus no space program.

  12. Grand Lunar says:

    “This might sound bad but…..I do not care about city killers at all.”

    Whoever lives in the city that is hit would care….for the few seconds they have left to live.

  13. Joe says:

    Robert Clark says: July 16, 2013 at 4:18 am

    Hi Robert,

    At the risk of seeming to be picking on you (which is not my intention) I will make a couple of points:

    While it may be possible to find some metric where the RL-10 looks expensive compared to its size to build, in any kind of overall efficiency comparison it is going to come our looking good compared to any other engine using cryogenic propellants. This is especially true if you are talking about a reusable vehicle (the DC-X proved that a vehicle with four RL-10’s could be turned around and flown multiple times a day with a ground crew of no more than 12).

    The article to which you link states “In 2003, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne had 90% of the work completed for the new RL-60 replacement of the RL-10.” A good question to ask would be why if Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne has had 90% of the development done on the RL-60 for 10 years they have never completed the other 10% and fielded the RL-60? Could it be that they realized that the RL-60 was really not as efficient as the RL-10?

    The idea that NASA may considering using an RL-10 based upper stage for the Block II SLS is interesting (I have to admit I have not been following Block II issues). In an earlier discussion between you and Dr. Spudis about the cost Constellation Systems he told you that a fix had been presented to the Augustine Commission for Constellation Systems budget problems. I believe he was talking about a presentation made by John Shannon. It used a Side Mount Configuration SDHLV and an RL-10 powered upper stage (to avoid the J2-X development cost). If it is now being considered to use the J2-X only twice and then replace it with RL-10s it would be further proof of just how clueless the current NASA political leadership really is.

    • billgamesh says:

      Sidemount should have been built right after Challenger. It would have made the Space Transportation System a success far beyond anyone’s expectations. Sadly, the games played behind closed doors that prevented any funding of a cargo version dragged on for decades and in the end we were left with nothing but regrets of what could have been.

      The worst part is we do not seem to have learned anything from all the mistakes that were made. Incredibly frustrating to know what is waiting out there and seeing it all thrown away so the same backroom thieves can fill their pockets courtesy of a succession of dumbed down generations.

      The shambling tattooed and pierced freaks I see holding their pants up every day are not interested in space- they don’t know a thing about it.

  14. Grand Lunar says:

    Yes, I did refer to the SLS.

    So SLS suffers from a similar problem that EELVs do (just at larger scale); low flight rate giving rise to higher costs.

    Situations like this are what convince me that an EELV-derived HLV would’ve been of greater value than a SDLV.

    But I digress…..

  15. billgamesh says:

    “-an EELV-derived HLV would’ve been of greater value than a SDLV.”

    The only EELV engine that comes anywhere close to the power of the SRB’s on a SDLV is the RS-68, which is not human-rated. “Deriving” such a heavy lift vehicle would cost just as much or more and take another decade.

  16. Joe says:

    Perhaps if this gets said enough it will sink in.

    The reason the proposed flight rate for the SLS is so low has nothing to do with it being an HLV or even Shuttle Derived. It is so low because the administration does not want it so they devise a “flight plan” to make it look bad.

    The administration would feel the same way about an EELV HLV (if they wanted one they would have proposed it). Thus, you would have the same politically driven proposed low flight rates and essentially the same situation. I understand your point about (to some degree at least) common engines, but the tankage, assembly and launch facilities (the standing army cost) would all be unique. If you put together a launch program with similarly low flight rates you will get similarly high hypothetical costs.

  17. Grand Lunar says:

    So why not use twin RD-180s with a 5 meter core Atlas 5, as with Atlas Phase 2?

    With the heavy configuration, we get 70 mT to LEO, same as the initial SLS. IIRC, it also delivers 30 mT to TLI.

    If we want something totally different, then there’s an idea that would have a 5.5 meter core with twin F-1A engines (I’m sure you’ve heard of the idea to bring them back from the grave).
    Top it off with an Ares 1-like upper stage.

    I think the single body version of such a hypothetical vehicle gives 30 mT to LEO.
    Don’t know what a three-body “heavy” version can do for sure, but I think it was said to be similar to Atlas Phase 2 Heavy.

  18. Grand Lunar says:

    I just thought that an EELV derived HLV (or similar version) would allow for lower costs because you can fly it more often in a non-HLV variant, like LEO missions and unmanned payloads.

    I don’t get how tankage, assembly, and launch facilities would be unique, given that Delta IV has a similar setup to what I had in mind.
    Does Delta IV Heavy has unique items that the non-heavy does not?

    • billgamesh says:

      It is not a heavy lift vehicle, it is not human rated.
      The 5 segment SRB’s are the most powerful boosters on Earth and nothing that exists or in development comes close to them- and they are human rated. You are talking about starting over after 30 years of developing and evolving a heavy lift first stage in the Saturn V class.
      Do you have any idea how incredibly expensive that would be?

    • Joe says:

      “I don’t get how tankage, assembly, and launch facilities would be unique, given that Delta IV has a similar setup to what I had in mind.”

      These things are not “tinker toys”. When you have a set of stages (designed to fly as a one stage unit) put together in parallel you do not just lash them together with rubber bands.

      A good example is the RS-68. At one time Constellation Systems considered using them on the Ares V, until they discovered that the closer arrangement would cause plume impingement (which would have destroyed the vehicle) and returned to the SSME’s. In theory the RS-68 could be redesigned to be used in a different manner, but that would make it a different engine and would compromise your desired commonality.

      A different configuration vehicle as you describe would require different ground handling and launch pad accommodations. Different skills would also be required for the ground crews, any configuration that only fly’s a small number of times will require special facilities and training (including refresher training) for its ground crews.

  19. billgamesh says:

    If the President is really committed to sending a human mission to an asteroid someone might mention to him the best destination is no longer an asteroid.

    The only asteroid worth sending human beings to has been reclassified as a dwarf planet; Ceres. Going there will require a Moon base from which to launch a nuclear propelled spaceship with massive cosmic ray shielding. Such a mission could be launched within 10 or 15 years with the same amount of money being spent on some cold war toy programs that do not work and never will. One example being;
    9.7 billion dollars just for missile defense this year. It is similar to commercial fusion energy- a nearly impossible feat of defying physics by trying to put a star in a box- in that hitting a bullet with a bullet is never going to work in the real world. Literally trillions of dollars have been spent on developing these technological wonders and decade after decade they keep failing simply because the laws of physics do not bend that easily.
    We know how to travel in space- yet we continue to expend resources elsewhere. If star wars and fusion and other such money holes were accomplishing anything encouraging I would have no problem with it. But they will probably never work as advertised.
    Not to say that some of the technology is not useful; the Gyrotron was developed from fusion research and may enable beam propulsion.

  20. Grand Lunar says:

    I’m willing to bet that the president only targeted asteroids to go to because Aldrin said that’s where we ought to go next, so we can make shorter jumps to Mars (as he puts it on his website).

    Shielding needn’t be heavy, BTW.
    Just place the crew module in the middle of propellant tanks. And have polyethelene bricks make up the outer walls.

    Fusion energy does not defy physics.
    We keep meeting with failure because of how difficult it is, not because we’re trying to bend physics in ways it’s not meant to.
    We’re learning as we go, too. We’ve learned more about plasma physics to figure out how to do better.

    Remember, we also were on a learning curve with rockets too. Recall all the failures with the early rockets? And how about with the problems of Apollo?
    Imagine if scientists felt the same way about those failures as you do about fusion.

    • billgamesh says:

      “Shielding needn’t be heavy, BTW”

      Sorry, afraid so. heavy nuclei and zero gravity debilitation are both issues that not only make deep space flight primarily a medical problem but determine the primary characteristics of spaceships (massive shield, nuclear propulsion) as secondary necessary features.


      As for fusion- there are only two places it will ever work as advertised; in a star or in a bomb. Plenty of people have retired after spending their whole careers trying to make commercial fusion work- and they will continue to retire. There is only one plan for commercial fusion that has ever had the possibility of working.


      People have become so used to accepting the popular culture view of reality they do not even understand the basic facts about what they so confidently state as fact. If it was as easy as they have been led to believe fusion would have happened a long time ago- and this includes the whole stable of myths such as reusable launch vehicles, cryogenic depots, and single stage to orbit.

      As long as the public remains uninformed about how difficult all these supposedly easy innovations are we will make no progress and continue to be duped into believing NASA actually plans on going to Mars and other such smoke screens to hide their real agenda-
      Which is to pander to political contributors like Musk and the rest of the private space snake oil salesmen.

  21. Grand Lunar says:

    -“If it was as easy as they have been led to believe fusion would have happened a long time ago- and this includes the whole stable of myths such as reusable launch vehicles, cryogenic depots, and single stage to orbit.”

    I never said fusion was easy.
    We did underestimate how difficult it is, yes.
    But it is not a reason to give up.

    As far as cryogenic depots go, what’s wrong with ULA’s idea?
    Seems to be the most workable idea for depots we have.
    For about the price of an HLV, we get twin depots at LEO and L2.
    It seems more a case of fear of the unknown than a case of technical impossibility.

    -“Which is to pander to political contributors like Musk and the rest of the private space snake oil salesmen.”

    So the success of CRS 1 and 2 mean nothing?

    • Joe says:

      SpaceX has a CRS contract to deliver 20 Metric Tons to the ISS in 12 flights for $1.6 Billion.

      That means the average payload per flight would have to be 3,667 lbs.

      CRS-1 and CRS-2 carried a total of barely 2,000 lbs. combined. So they represent 1/6 of the flights and only 1/22 of the payload required to fulfill the contract.

      It is also curious that they are so limited in up-mass. Their website still lists the Dragon Cargo vehicle up-mass capability as 13,226 lbs. So they only signed up to deliver 27% of their claimed up-mass capability and are, so far, delivering only 28% of even that reduced figure.

      Based on that I would say CRS-1 and CRS-2 mean a great deal less than you think they do.

  22. billgamesh says:

    “But it is not a reason to give up”

    Generations of research scientists have come and gone in the lucrative field of fusion research. Taxpayers have footed the bill for the promise of clean energy. It was not a promise- it was a scam. The deception is simple- placing fission and fusion in the same category as if one is just an improved version of the other- and governments are happy to fund it. Why? Weapons research in disguise.
    Pile a bunch of plutonium together and you have fission; try and recreate the conditions in the heart of a star inside a reactor and you are trying to do something completely different. You figure it out.

    “It seems more a case of fear of the unknown-”

    No, it is a case of trying to make money with smaller launchers and higher launch rate- and a great deal of complex and expensive new hardware- as a substitute for a HLV. There is no substitute- it is a scam.

    “-the success of CRS 1 and 2 mean nothing?_

    Less than nothing; private space is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

    The hobby rocket is inferior and obsolete- the technology was originally paid for by the taxpayer and now we are getting charged for it again. There is no cheap.

  23. Grand Lunar says:

    “No, it is a case of trying to make money with smaller launchers and higher launch rate- and a great deal of complex and expensive new hardware- as a substitute for a HLV. There is no substitute- it is a scam. ”

    Have you read ULA’s proposal with ACES based depots?
    I fail to see a scam in it. Where do you?

    As for the rest…we’ll just have to wait and see how it turns out to see whose opinion is valid.

    • Joe says:

      “Have you read ULA’s proposal with ACES based depots?”

      If you are talking about the 2009 study “A Commercially Based Lunar Architecture”, yes I have. While it talks several times about how expensive HLV’s are and the advantages of using existing hardware, their architecture requires new hardware as well.

      Just one example, orbital depots themselves. But while they show lots of illustrations and mass estimates, they make no attempt to cost the depots. That makes a study purporting to show the greater efficiency of their proposal (at best) incomplete.

      You would be better off looking at “Using the resources of the Moon to create a permanent, cislunar space faring system”. It is co-authored (along with Anthony R. Lavoie) by Dr. Spudis. I am not trying to curry favor with our host, it is the only study with which I am familiar that makes a good faith attempt at costing an orbital depot.

  24. billgamesh says:

    “I fail to see a scam in it. Where do you?”

    First, understand that “Space Travel” by definition means going somewhere. Low Earth Orbit is NOT space travel. It is going in circles.

    Second, understand the difference between “Space Flight” and “Human Space Flight.” Sending a micro satellite that weighs a few pounds into Low Earth Orbit and sending a human being beyond Lunar orbit into deep space is not the same thing.

    Third, understand that physics have not changed in the 45 years since human beings first left the gravitational field of Earth. This includes exhaust velocities and material science; no unobtanium or wishalloy has become available.

    Keeping these three things in mind, consider the whole point of a multi-billion dollar civil space program. It has not changed any more than physics has; human travel to new worlds. So to define this goal in a form less conducive to misleading the public and in the interest of clarity, consider the term HSF-BELO: Human Space Flight- Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit.

    Starting with HSF-BELO as the fundamental activity, much of the public confusion and opportunity for scamming the taxpayer with gimmicks, gadgets, and cheap and easy solutions to problems that do not exist disappear. All the smokescreens become transparent and the money games no longer befuddle.

    Now consider the H in HSF. Long term cosmic radiation exposure and zero gravity debilitation and several problems that arise from the two, such as mutated pathogens, depressed immune response, and ineffective irradiated drugs, all make HSF-BELO primarily a medical problem. This is the dirty secret that means all the grandiose plans using unshielded chemically propelled spacecraft without artificial gravity for human missions in deep space are…….fantasy. This is not stopping the industry and certain “entrepreneurs” from making a profit off deceiving the public into thinking it is possible.

    And that is the scam.

    So if you are talking about refueling satellites or space tourism in LEO you are talking about what companies like SpaceX and ULA are talking about; but you are not talking about human beings traveling in deep space- that is different. If human travel to new worlds is what the taxpayer thinks they are paying for they are being scammed.

    I will keep on repeating it as long as Dr. Spudis will let me; The Moon is the key to any human travel in deep space because NASA cannot play with nuclear energy anywhere in the Earth’s magnetosphere. Chemical propulsion is worthless for pushing massive shielding around the solar system.The Moon is the only place to assemble, test, and launch nuclear missions. The Moon is also the only place where thousands of tons of water- in the form of lunar ice- can be found for cosmic ray shielding.

    A Heavy Lift Vehicle is the most efficient way to get to the Moon. It was a half century ago and it still is. The same cheaper-smaller- is-better- fuel depot concepts were considered in the late 50’s and rejected as impractical. Nothing has changed. All the flexible path private space propaganda is about avoiding the hard fact that there is no cheap. And filling shareholder pockets with tax dollars. It is a scam.

    I could expand this comment- easily expand it into a 300 page book with pretty pictures explaining and illustrating all the history and problems of the flexible path and the nefarious political connections to the military industrial complex. But who would read it? As I commented earlier, not the people I see holding their pants up.

    Like the race to the Moon, only fear will drive the public to pay attention and support a real space program. What I am most afraid of is an impact or an engineered pathogen and a Moon base answers both threats.

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