The Frontier of Space

A mountain man on the Moon.  Could settlers follow?

A mountain man on the Moon. Could settlers follow?

My friend Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to have stepped in it.  Commenting on his radio show Star Talk, Neil said that the private sector would not “lead the way on the frontier,” presumably referring to the opening of space.  This simply stated truth has caused howls of outrage from New Space acolytes.  How could he say such a thing?  Well, because it happens to be true. 

Neil isn’t against private spaceflight.  He stated quite clearly in his monologue that he hopes the future will hold many more private space efforts.  Tyson believes that government must lead in the development of the new frontier of space because of risk posture.  The things that we must learn how to do in space are difficult and have many unknown aspects.  Typically, private companies have neither the capital nor the inclination to take on exceedingly risky things, especially risky things on which any possible return on investment is so distant in the future.

These are not outrageous statements.  As business precepts, they seem little more than common sense.  Yet one would think that Tyson had pronounced by fiat that the private sector would be denied their shot at space.  In part, Neil’s real sin is that his stance stands in contrast to space impresario Elon Musk, who recently claimed that he would be sending people to Mars in 10-15 years.  Tyson doesn’t believe that.  And neither do I.

What are the relative roles of government and the private sector on the frontier of space?  Is space really a “frontier” in the sense that we usually understand that term?  John Kennedy is often associated with the “New Frontier” (which actually referred to his administration’s policy initiatives, of which space was only one) but space advocates (including myself) have used this analogy for some time.  In part, driven by the dreams of science fiction, we tend to view space as a 19th Century American once viewed the West – as a new frontier to be explored, tamed, used and settled.

An article published in National Review looked at this analogy in detail and drew some disturbing conclusions.  Charles Cooke claims that as the frontier of space has gradually closed (due to a wide variety of complex factors), the American polity is becoming more like that of Europe (i.e., an individualistic, self-reliant frontier mindset is being replaced by the insular, risk-averse attitude commonly associated with the entitlement state).  According to Cooke, frontiers were places to which the malcontents of society drifted, replacing their secure, complacent existences with both opportunity and danger, while those content to remain behind drifted toward a more collectivist mindset, “secure” within an ever-growing government structure.  When the frontier closes, avenues for both risk and opportunity become scarce and life naturally drifts toward subservience, more collectivist and less individualistic (and he might have added, less productive).

This seems to be an interesting explanation for certain trends in American life, but is it really true that space as a frontier has been “closed?”  When comparing two historical events, one can never get the analogies precisely correct because circumstances and conditions (if not human nature) are always different.  During the westward movement in American history, a sequence of events developed.  After the initial explorations, there followed a period of limited use, usually with some significant government presence.  Lewis and Clark’s first exploration of Louisiana was followed by other exploring expeditions, including mapping by the U.S. Army (such as the mission of Captain Zebulon Pike).  This probing was accompanied by roaming mountain men, societal misfits who made a marginal living trapping and hunting in the wilderness.  Typically, the first settlers were cattlemen – individuals willing and able to turn the alleged disadvantages of the frontier (wide open spaces separated by great distances, with scarce water and less timber) into an advantage (raising a product that could transport itself to market).  The U.S. Army was ever-present on the frontier both to keep the peace and to ensure that property rights of the pioneers were not violated.

At this stage of development, most settlers (traveling to Oregon Territory or California) used the great frontier trails to transit the continent.  However, once the transcontinental railroad was built, the development of the interior of the United States rapidly followed.  The infrastructure now existed to get agricultural products to markets on both coasts.  This allowed farmers to displace stock ranching as the primary economy of the west.  The economic expansion that followed saw towns built by entrepreneurs and new growth fueled by customers.  By the early 1890s, most accessible land had been brought under cultivation and the frontier was “closed.”  Throughout this process, government was never far away, although as towns grew, local civil authority would eventually supplant army control and protection.

Does this sequence of development have any relation to the concept of space as a frontier?  Possibly it does.  In regard to space beyond low earth orbit, we are currently in our “Lewis and Clark – Mountain Man” phase of development – the robotic probes to the Moon and planets, followed by human exploratory missions to the Moon.  These are tentative, uncertain steps – missions to characterize and measure the properties of the new frontier and assess its possibilities for future exploratory (and possibly, utilization) efforts.  As with the western cattlemen, the first settlers will be those who can take advantage of what’s available from the local environment, regardless of whether it is a different resource or a familiar one in some unusual state that requires conversion.  The most useful resources in space are solar energy (to generate electrical and thermal power) and water (which has multiple uses for human life support, energy storage and as rocket propellant).  Both commodities are available in abundance at the poles of the Moon.

Because no one has ever extracted useful products from the natural materials found in space, their legal status is uncertain.  If there was an “ice-rush,” who would own and process the claims?  A recent piece by Leonard David explored some of these issues with experts in existing space law.  As was true in the American west, law and property rights in space are nebulous.  There will likely be differences of opinion on issues of ownership and title between entities, both national and corporate.  For this reason alone, government must have some presence on the frontier.  It may be a military presence – there already is such a presence now.  An extension of their duties would not be out of the question.  However, the civil space program could conceivably serve the same role, especially if it were engaged (as it should be) in technical research designed to understand the issues and payoffs associated with resource development.  What form do useful materials take in space?  How might they be accessed and processed?  What techniques of extraction and refinement are optimal?  The private sector must have answers to these and other questions.  With few exceptions, they cannot be fully addressed and answered by the commercial sector alone.

In this instance, government has a crucial role to play – the role of risk mitigation.  Any single issue might be resolved by private companies, but a coordinated assault and a development of a viable solution to the entire problem is likely to be accomplished only by a supervised, coordinated effort.  This is a process at which government can excel but one that is usually anathema to industry (except for rare – and illegal – cartels).  This simple fact – and the concurrent need for a legitimizing, legal regime to be developed (an activity that only government can accomplish and enforce), suggests that Neil Tyson has stated the issue correctly.  Governments lead the development of the frontier.  Not because it is the “right thing” but because it is the possible thing.

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52 Responses to The Frontier of Space

  1. DougSpace says:

    Apart from communications satellites, it is true that space is too risky for capital markets to take on. There’s always that joke about how to become a millionaire in the space industry. Easy, just start with a billion! However, Elon didn’t go into the aerospace industry in order to get the best return on his investment. From what he’s said, the culture he’s built within SpaceX, and the technical direction he is aiming his technology, it’s clear that he truly intends to develop a transportation system between Earth and Mars. It’s his money, so heck, God speed!

    What Tyson was talking about is general market forces not the individual whims of billionaires. So what he’s talking about does not necessarily apply to Musk, Bigelow, Paul Allen, Branson, Carmack, Tito, etc. Sure, many of them are trying to develop an economically sustainable path but any of them, like Tito, could use their money in a way that has nothing to do with market forces.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      What Tyson was talking about is general market forces not the individual whims of billionaires. So what he’s talking about does not necessarily apply to Musk, Bigelow, Paul Allen, Branson, Carmack, Tito, etc

      He was actually making a slightly different point — not that an individual could not squander his wealth on some idée fixe, but whether such spending would actually produce the result striven for. There are many unknowns in human Mars missions, especially the “unknown unknowns” in which one does not recognize the full degree and extent of one’s ignorance. Running into one of these serious issues could (at any time) deplete the remainder of the billionaire’s money. Where does that leave “The Cause”?

    • Joe says:

      “It’s his money, so heck, God speed!”

      If that were true, I would agree with you, but:
      (1) He has received hundreds of millions of tax payer dollars.
      (2) He is scheduled to receive hundreds of millions more.
      (3) He is lobbying for hundreds of millions more beyond that.

      • Mike says:

        The Army bought a lot of beef in the Old West, but that fact doesn’t detract from the ranchers independence and risk tolerance.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          The Army also did not subsidize the ranchers by purchasing breeding stock to start the herds, fence the range, drive the cattle to the railheads, or pay for feed lots.

  2. DougSpace says:

    As this post points out, it is not an either-or proposition. It is not either government or market forces. The government can buy down risks first and then the entrepreneurs can follow later. Also, nothing in physics or economics necessarily prevents a Planetary Resources-like scenario where a commercial company strikes out ahead of government on the frontier if a business case can be made. For example, government does not necessarily have to develop in-space mining techniques before companies do. Finally, and most salient to this discussion is the concept of public-private partnerships where government partners with commercial companies, funds initial development, gets some near-term benefits as a result (e.g. lower cost transportation), but where market sustainability is designed in from the beginning so as to get the operations off the government’s books.

    • Robert Clark says:

      Good point there at the end, Doug. I am a strong proponent of commercial space but I was not bothered by Tyson’s comments. Quite key to remember is that Musk himself said he expects it would take a public-private partnership to get to Mars. And NASA’s commercial space program has been very successful at getting both launchers and spacecraft at a fraction of the usual fully government financed cost by paying only part of the cost with the companies paying the rest.
      Also, it is important to remember that in Tyson’s example of Columbus, that actually the crown only financed half the cost, the rest coming from private sources. The imprimatur of the crown being willing to put up such a large amount quite likely helped Columbus raise the rest of the amount he needed from private sources.
      This example also raises another possibility. I don’t know if this happened in the Columbus case, but it’s possible the crown insured the private investors against loss for the money they put up. This would be a useful idea to follow here as well.
      I think it is an extremely important fact that the cost to government, i.e., to NASA, was cut by 90%(!) by following the cost-sharing approach of commercial space. Undoubtedly this was because the companies involved had to figure out how to do things in an economical way when a large portion of their own money was being risked.
      But to encourage the companies to help pay for very risky missions to the Moon, Mars, or the asteroids the government could insure their financing against loss. This would still be beneficial to the government because from the example of NASA’s commercial space program the total cost would still be 1/10th that of what they would have paid if it were a fully government financed mission.

      Bob Clark

      • Joe says:

        “And NASA’s commercial space program has been very successful at getting both launchers and spacecraft at a fraction of the usual fully government financed cost by paying only part of the cost with the companies paying the rest.”

        Could you please elucidate as to which “launchers and spacecraft” (plural by your phrasing) have been produced at a “fraction of the usual fully government financed cost”.

        “I think it is an extremely important fact that the cost to government, i.e., to NASA, was cut by 90%(!) by following the cost-sharing approach of commercial space.”

        That is a truly remarkable assertion. Can you supply a link to documentation (something other than a SpaceX press release or the equivalent) to verify its accuracy?

  3. Brilliant article Dr. Spudis! The ultimate irony, however, is that so called ‘New Space’ companies actually love government!

    They utilize government facilities to launch their vehicles and ask for government help when things go wrong with their systems.

    They actually complain when they don’t get enough government (tax payer) money to help develop their private space technology.

    And they enthusiastically want to be part of big government space programs like the ISS.

    Some companies like Space X have even sued other companies in order to attempt to gain access to big government military contracts.

    These ‘New Space’ companies seem to love government as long as– tax payer money– is flowing into their pockets. But they seem to hate it when any of those funds go to traditional private vendors like Boeing or Lockheed-Martin or the ULA– to do things that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people actually want them to do!

    There’s been absolutely nothing stopping private companies from investing billions of private dollars annually into manned space travel over the past 50 years except for the fact that these companies are still not sure if they can actually make a profit doing so– without the government:-)

    NASA is trying everything it can to help these new space companies get on their feet– which is a very good thing for America’s aerospace industry and for the American economy. But attempting to cripple NASA’s ability to pioneer the Moon and Mars through its traditional vendors doesn’t help new space, it hurts it!

    Marcel F. Williams

  4. mike shupp says:

    Fascinating post today at Motherboard ( on states with surplus law school grads starting programs for would-be space attorneys. In case you feel you haven’t been banging your head into a wall anywhere near long enough, hard enough.

  5. Warren Platts says:

    I’m all for NASA paying down risk, but that’s not what they’re doing. The billions and billions being spent on SLS and MPCV are not reducing the risk for anybody–not even NASA. They have no business being in the spacecraft and LV business. If they want to go to the Moon, they should contract out with Golden Spike or Boeing or both. NASA should play the role of anchor tenant: they should help out with the development costs and then be a steady customer. With development costs out of the way and ongoing operations, it all of a sudden looks a lot more attractive for other private customers.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Subsidizing supposedly “private sector” companies is not “paying down risk” but is simply another government giveaway program. There are no private sector service providers for beyond LEO human space flight. NASA cannot contract for heavy lift because there are no commercial heavy lift vehicles, including “Falcon Heavy,” a non-existent fantasy rocket.

      • Warren Platts says:

        OK, now I’m really confused. If the BLM or Forest Service buys a pickup truck from Chevrolet, is that a government giveaway? What about if Raytheon manages South Pole Station for the NSF–is that a giveaway? How about when the SMD contracts with ULA to launch a space probe? Call ’em giveaway programs if you want, but I don’t see the problem with it.

        Now I don’t know about you, but I have completely lost confidence in the ability of NASA/MSFC to deliver a capable HSF architecture within a reasonable budget. The son of Ares SLS is a disaster: ULA already launches more than twice the tonnage per year with it’s puny rockets than SLS ever will even at the unrealistic rate of 2 launches per year. The Orion/MPCV is overweight, underpowered, and over budget. The Altair lander was about the worst lander design ever proposed for 20 different reasons. If you’re going to wait for NASA itself to build the transcontinental railroad to the Moon, I’m afraid you may be waiting for a long time my friend….

        Notice that the USG did not build original transcontinental railroad: the work was contracted out to the Central Pacific and Union Pacific in the mother of all giveaway programs.

        Note also in 1862, there were no private sector service providers for transcontinental rail traffic; and like the current Golden Spike Company (GS), the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were paper companies who planned to cross the continent on what were at the time “fantasy” locomotives.

        As for NASA specifically contracting with GS for lunar missions: while I can see why you call it a giveaway program, I don’t see how you can say it would not pay down risk for potential private sector customers. E.g., if Rio Tinto were interested in a GS prospecting mission to the Moon, right now they would have to pony up at least $7B for one mission. But if NASA had already paid down the development costs, the risk of not finding anything worthwhile is now only $1.5B–that’s a lot less risk.

        But I think you may have hit on something important here, Paul, albeit indirectly. We are at an impasse because the private sector can’t afford to take on the risk, whereas the government simply lacks the competence to make it happen themselves within a reasonable budget. Then, because of ideological reasons, we find it impossible to forge a private/public partnership that could make it happen. Meanwhile, the Chinese do not hobble themselves with philosophical scruples. It is evidently likely that the future history of space travel will prove that their system is the superior one. The only question then remaining will be whether they are willing to share….

        • Paul Spudis says:

          If the BLM or Forest Service buys a pickup truck from Chevrolet, is that a government giveaway?

          No, but if the BLM or Forest Service paid Chevrolet for developing its Silverado line of trucks, is that an appropriate use of government money?

          the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were paper companies who planned to cross the continent on what were at the time “fantasy” locomotives.

          The difference is that those companies had already built operating rail systems before they attempted the transcontinental line.

          Then, because of ideological reasons, we find it impossible to forge a private/public partnership that could make it happen

          I don’t agree that the reasons are ideological — they are based on both past performance and serious questions about future competence. A lot of the New Space companies are big on issuing press releases and devising computer animations, but their record of flight and actual accomplishment in space is less robust.

          Just because you’ve lost faith in NASA does not mean that the idea of government building a permanent space transportation system cannot be achieved. If NASA is unable to do the job we created it to do, we can create a new entity to do that job.

          the Chinese do not hobble themselves with philosophical scruples.

          Yeah, that’s the ticket. We should become like the Chinese.

          • Warren Platts says:

            No, but if the BLM or Forest Service paid Chevrolet for developing its Silverado line of trucks, is that an appropriate use of government money?

            Perhaps a better analogy would be the USG’s funding AM General’s line of Humvees for use by the US Army. It was later adapted into the successful Hummer line of civilian vehicles. If NASA really needed a HLV and wanted to pay down risk for the private sector, they would have contracted with ULA or SpaceX to develop an Atlas P2 or Falcon XX for a fraction of the SLS cost. Heck, they could have funded both for less than SLS’s development costs! Then, unlike SLS, these rockets would be available for private customers as well as NASA.

            The difference is that those companies had already built operating rail systems before they attempted the transcontinental line.

            Not exactly. The Pacific Railroad Act authorizing the transcontinental railroad was passed in 1862. The Central Pacific did not lay its first mile of track until the next year; the Union Pacific did not lay its first mile until 1865. The history is instructive because it parallels what we are witnessing WRT “New Space”.

            First there was a visionary, Theodore Judah, (a.k.a. “Crazy Judah”). His 1857 manifesto makes for absolutely fascinating reading for modern space advocates:


            He starts with a grandiose description of a transcontinental railroad and all the benefits it will bring. He then states that the problem of raising capital for the project is merely one of confidence: if every cubic yard of excavation, every mile of steel, and every single cross-tie could be accounted for in a detailed survey, investors would flock to the project. However, he is skeptical of the government’s competence to manage the project:

            Can the United States Government do it? Have they done it? Have they tried? No, and they will not; and what is more the people do not much care to have them, for they have little confidence in their ability to carry it out economically, or to protect themselves and the treasury from the rapacious clutches of the hungry speculators who would swarm round them like vultures round a dead carcass.

            Sound familiar? However, Judah also doesn’t want it funded by what he calls “moonshine speculators” from Great Britain either. The transcontinental railroad is supposed to be a people’s railroad that’s going to allow the settlement of the frontier! So he proposes a 19th century version of Kickstarter: teams of lecturers will travel through the 15 states the railroad will go through or near and gather subscriptions from enough individuals at $100/year for 10 years each.

            To make his case, like us he looked to past glories, but instead of the transcontinental railroad, he looked back to the 17th century innovation of stage coach lines.

            And boy oh boy, did he every have his “fantasy” locomotives: he proposed laying two standard gauge rail lines six feet apart–and a gigantic steam locomotive that would run on all four rails and be capable of over 100 mph!!

            Of course, the “kickstarter” project never got off the ground, so he pandered his ideas to the 19th century version of Silicon Valley billionaires, the “Big Four” from the Sacramento Valley. And like good billionaires everywhere who make their money using other people’s ideas, other people’s labor, and other people’s money, they figured why should pay for it if they can cajole the USG into funding it? So, Judah became a major paid lobbyist at Washington who was instrumental in getting the USG to fund the mother of all giveaway programs.

            Here is a link showing a map of the UP land grant in Nebraska alone:


            And keep in mind that 19th century railroad companies were the ExxonMobiles of the day…

            And of course, in the end, Crazy Judah’s “partners” cut him out of the deal as soon as Congress was swayed….

            So actually the building of the transcontinental railroad was a nasty bit of sausage making and crony capitalism, and yes, it was a massive giveaway program for big corporations and robber barons, but it got the job done.

            Thus, if history is any guide, asking NASA to be the Amtrak of cislunar space is asking too much–they simply can’t do it even if they wanted to (cf. Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy”). What we need is precisely a big giveaway program for New and Old Space corporations–companies like Spudis Lunar Resources! Let them figure it out!

            Just my opinion. YMMV.

            Yeah, that’s the ticket. We should become like the Chinese.

            Who are evidently a lot like the 19th century Americans who built the transcontinental railroad….

            (Sorry for the length of the post.)

          • Paul Spudis says:

            Perhaps a better analogy would be the USG’s funding AM General’s line of Humvees for use by the US Army. It was later adapted into the successful Hummer line of civilian vehicles

            The HumVee was a military vehicle, designed to military specifications, but built by a contractor. The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft are better analogies. SpaceX is effectively just another government contractor like Lockheed and Boeing, but they pose as entrepreneurial free marketeers.

            The difference is that those companies had already built operating rail systems before they attempted the transcontinental line. — Not exactly.

            I meant that the people who ran the UP and CP railroads had railroad building and operating experience.

            What we need is precisely a big giveaway program for New and Old Space corporations. Let them figure it out!

            If I had any confidence that they knew what they were doing, perhaps this suggestion might have merit. But I don’t. My sense is that they are long on wind and promises and (very) short on performance.


            It does. It most certainly does.

          • Warren Platts says:

            I meant that the people who ran the UP and CP railroads had railroad building and operating experience.

            That was my point, sir: it may be the case that the Golden Spike Company has yet to lay it’s first “mile of track”, but the company is certainly crewed by people who have spacecraft building and operating experience. According to their website, not counting the highly qualified people who never drew a NASA paycheck, the following personnel are on their team:

            Gerry Griffin – Apollo Flight Director, former Director of NASA Johnson Space Center

            Alan Stern – President and CEO, planetary scientist, former head of all NASA science missions

            Cindy Conrad – formerly at NASA Headquarters Planetary Science Division and Exploration Systems Mission Directorate

            Jeff Ashby – former NASA space Shuttle commander

            Jonathan Clark – former NASA Space Shuttle flight surgeon

            Wayne Hale – former chief of NASA’s Space Shuttle program

            Homer Hickam – former NASA engineer

            Chris Kemp – former NASA Chief Information Officer

            Stephen Mackwell – planetary scientist and Director, Lunar & Planetary Institute

            James A. Lovell – former test pilot and NASA Apollo astronaut

            These are people who know how to run a space program because they’ve done it before. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t do it again, given sufficient funding.

            I certainly hope you will be attending the Golden Spike Workshop in Houston next month, Paul. Your expertise will surely be welcome. Someday the current NASA POR SNAFU is going to come apart at the seams: something will have to take its place….

          • Paul Spudis says:

            OK, you’ve had your say. But my blog will not become a Golden Spike commercial, so please take this elsewhere.

      • libs0n says:

        “NASA cannot contract for heavy lift because there are no commercial heavy lift vehicles, including “Falcon Heavy,” a non-existent fantasy rocket.”

        And yet the Air Force has already bought a Falcon Heavy launch.

        Commercial unmanned resupply craft like the Dragon or Cygnus didn’t exist when NASA created the COTS and CRS programs, and yet that was something NASA was perfectly able to do to meet its future needs.

        So NASA and the Air Force have already done things you think they cannot do. Warren Platts’ proposal of conducting lunar missions with a COTS type program is a perfectly valid option.

        • Paul Spudis says:

          And yet the Air Force has already bought a Falcon Heavy launch.

          No they haven’t — they have signed an agreement with SpaceX to evaluate the Falcon 9 (not the Falcon Heavy, which does not exist) for use in launching their payloads:

          • libs0n says:

            They’ve also purchased two missions, one for the Falcon 9 and one for the Falcon Heavy. Falcon Heavy has also won a mission so far from Intelsat, in addition to the Falcon Heavy demo mission that SpaceX will launch first.



          • Paul Spudis says:

            Interesting — two links, one to a SpaceX press release and the other to a “news’ story based on their press releases.

            Here’s a slightly more nuanced story from The Washington Post:

            Quote: “SpaceX officials want the company to get its military certification in 2014. It will need to launch each version of a rocket successfully three times before it can receive the Defense Department’s approval, Shotwell said.”


            The supposed payload Space Test 2 does not specify any mission — or even if it has one. It would appear to be a dummy payload, designed to see how the new wonder rocket performs.

            My original assessment stands: the Falcon Heavy does not exist, outside the minds of SpaceX and its cheerleaders. As for Intelsat, I’m sure that their contract is written such that if the wonder rocket does not materialize, they will get their deposit refunded.

          • Joe says:

            You beat me to it.

            Just to put a finer point on it, the DoD has made an agreement with SpaceX to determine if the (also yet to be flown) Falcon 9 v1.1 will be allowed to compete for military launch contracts.

            When you look at the SpaceX web page and their “manifest” lists military payloads for the Falcon 9 (much less the Falcon Heavy) it would best to keep that in mind.

          • oldAtlas_Eguy says:

            Space Test Program Experiment Flight 2 is a collection of non-critical experimental payloads. Some are on a common inexpensive bus and others are individual secondary payloads. The total value of all of these payloads combined is not much more than the cost of an FH. This flight is a way for these projects (some of which are DARPA projects) to reduce thier costs by accepting a higher launch risk. A total project cost of 2 times the payload cost vs 5 times the payload cost. Without FH most of these experiments would be waiting a long time to fly on other AF missions as secondaries.

            More info of STP budget:

            Plus SpaceX would probably only get paid for delivery of STP2 payloads if they succed in getting it to orbit being that the launch, the second FH, is an FH test launch.

            So yes this is more like a MOU or a SAA but it is a real sat payload and a real contract for launch services.

          • Joe says:

            Sorry, I am an engineer not a lawyer, but even I know that saying something is “more like a MOU” and that “SpaceX would probably only get paid for delivery of STP2 payloads if they succed in getting it to orbit”, then saying that it is “a real contract for launch services” does not make any sense.

    • The SLS development program is basically a Boeing program. Boeing aggressively lobbied Congress for the development of a heavy lift vehicle.

      The Space Launch System has a pretty meager budget of less than $1.5 billion a year. So its hardly a burden to NASA’s manned spaceflight budget. And its actually being seriously underfunded.

      Marcel F. Williams

  6. Mark R. Whittington says:

    As usual, a very good insight. A lot of our New Space friends are somewhat confused about what private business can and cannot do. Tyson was right on in his remarks but by the reaction in some quarters you would have thought he had denied the existence of God in the middle of church.

  7. oldAtlas_Eguy says:

    Yes, Tyson is correct in that government investigates what is out there. Once known sufficiently then private investors will eventually figure out how to make money off of it. There is one fly-in-the-ointment for in-space investors and that is cheap access to space. Until that problem is sufficiently solved by private industry the next phase of cis-lunar private exploitation will be very slow in coming. In Spudis’s words “the mountain man” scenario. Until we get to start of real infrastructure startups providing commercial in-space services we remain in a Power Point chart of possibilities.

    The cheap access to space has only just started to be solved so don’t expect a breakout in in-space developers to occur for a decade. The FH with LEO $/kg rates of $2,000 is just a start but even that rate is still 2 to 4 times too expensive for most business cases to succeed. Some “New Space” fans think SpaceX is doing cutting edge technical development but actually the real work they are doing is related to using existing inexpensive manufacturing and operating technologies and applying them to the LV business. Real commercial cost tradeoff engineering. NASA does not have to do this type of engineering to solve their mission requirements, hence why most NASA projects cost so much. Plus their missions are so full of technical unknowns that this also drives them away from the commercial engineering world of problem solving.

  8. Grand Lunar says:

    I’ve seen the miused analogy regarding the comparison between the exploration of the American west and going to Mars.
    People forget the role government had in it and what was needed to really expand the use of the new territory; the use of infrastructure.

    Another thing to note is that going to Mars has more in common with high risk ventures like exploring Challenger Deep than the American West. The former was (and often still is) undertaken by government backed missions.

    The comparison to the settling of the American West seems to be an effort to make it seem easier than it really is.

  9. billgamesh says:

    This is a lot of talk about something that does not yet exist- a true spaceship. However the only realistic propulsion system for this kind of project is nuclear pulse.

    The most practical course I can imagine is to send upper stages to orbit the Moon and put them together in a ring as wet workshops. Attach the ring to a thin pusher disk on some shock absorbers. With a couple or however many necessary low yield bombs the assembled ship would be landed on or near the lunar water resource. Once the massive water shield was filled the spaceship would be ready for full power takeoff and for deep space missions to the outer planets. Putting together this spinning one gravity fully shielded long duration life endurance system could make emergency missions up to ten years possible.

    So if we have a long term program dedicated to a continued production line of these shielded spinning disc type craft, then we can bomb our way around the solar system pretty quickly. As long as the ships are assembled in lunar polar orbit they can use their h-bomb systems without contaminating the Earth’s magnetosphere. The basic nuclear fuel and compartments are assembled in orbit and the entire ship landed and filled with water. When ready the ship blasts off using h-bombs into deep space. The fuel is Moon water and bombs so most of the ship is made of water.

    Building these ships for different countries could build some momentum in space exploration and as planetary protection assets. A growing fleet of these manned spaceships establishing outposts in space is the future our race must consider as a necessary precaution against a dinosaur killer.

  10. Robert Clark says:

    It is very likely that the Falcon Heavy will be built by making a comparison to the Delta IV and Delta IV Heavy. The Delta IV cost $3.5 billion to develop, while the development cost of the Delta IV Heavy was only $500 million. Moreover the first launch of the Delta IV was in 2002, while the Delta IV Heavy first launch took place just two years later in 2004.
    It’s surprising that such a large rocket cost so much less, and its first launch occurred so soon after that of its core stage. But it must be due to the fact that the difficult “heavy lifting” was already done in the development of the core stage and integrating three existing copies of them together was a much simpler process.
    Undoubtedly, SpaceX was aware of this when deciding to proceed so rapidly with the development of the Falcon Heavy. We might even estimate how much would be the development cost of the Falcon Heavy. The DIVH cost only 1/7th that of the DIV to develop. The Falcon 9 has been variously estimated to cost $300 to $440 million to develop. Then the Falcon Heavy might only cost $45 to $65 million to develop.

    Bob Clark

    • Joe says:

      There are a number of potential problems for your optimistic scenario. Three of them are as follows:
      (1) The first launch of the Delta IV Heavy failed due to an unexpected Pogo Effect when the three stages were combined. That was worked out but with a different set of hardware different sets of problems should not be unexpected.
      (2) The Falcon Heavy is based on the Falcon 9 v1.1 (not the current iteration Falcon 9). In spite of the cleverly deceptive name that is a new vehicle with new engines and new tankage, and it has yet to fly.
      (3) The Delta IV Heavy was really three common cores put together. It required different load paths and new equipment to place the cores in tandem. Even there as noted above there were problems. The Falcon Heavy (as described by SpaceX) is a much bigger stretch from even the (currently not flown) Falcon 9 v.1.1. To reach its payload performance of 50 tons it must (again according to SpaceX) use a cross feeding system. That is, the two outboard units must not only supply fuel to their own engines but two the central unit as well (all at the same time). That is a neat trick that has never before been accomplished. The closest thing that has been done was with the – wait for it – much maligned Space Shuttle and there the one External Tank only had to supply one set of engines on the Orbiter. What SpaceX is claiming is much more complicated and was in no way a part of the Delta IV Heavy.

      You should not “bet the farm” on the success of the Falcon Heavy.

      • Robert Clark says:

        I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. But the base version without cross-feed fueling would probably be of comparable difficulty as to the DIVH.
        I’d just say it was very likely the base version will take place, which Musk has said will be used unless the customer needs the higher capacity cross-feed version.
        In regards to cross-feed on the shuttle a better example would be the OMS pods, which never failed on all shuttle flights.


        • Joe says:

          “I’d just say it was very likely the base version will take place, which Musk has said will be used unless the customer needs the higher capacity cross-feed version.”

          Musk says a lot of things, including that he will be selling one way tickets to Mars (for colonist to live in his 800,000 person colony) by 2027 (14 years from now) at $500,000/ticket. The question is what is the payload capacity for what you now call the “base version” of the Falcon Heavy and who are these customers? Please do not say the DoD as it has already been discussed that even the Falcon 9 does not have clearance to even bid on military payloads as of yet.

          “In regards to cross-feed on the shuttle a better example would be the OMS pods, which never failed on all shuttle flights.”

          The Shuttle Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines were non-cryogenic hypergolic (Nitrogen Tetroxide/Mono Methyl Hydrazine) and were used in the much less stringent environment in LEO. There is no comparison to what SpaceX is proposing.

          Again you will believe whatever you want, but what you want to believe requires a “willing suspension of disbelief”.

          • Robert Clark says:

            According to SpaceX the Falcon Heavy without cross-feed will be able to deliver 45 metric tons to LEO, which is still pretty good.
            We’ll know in the next year or so if the Falcon Heavy will be developed.

            Bob Clark

    • billgamesh says:

      “Moreover the first launch of the Delta IV was in 2002, while the Delta IV Heavy first launch took place just two years later in 2004.”

      What you are really talking about here is an engine for a launch vehicle- the RS-68.This chemical engine and an upper stage using an LR-10 can send payloads into cislunar space. Not very big payloads at all and certainly not people. This is not what human beings are going to Mars in. Though in my opinion the largest nine or ten icy moons of the four gas giants are the “space frontier”; some people seem to think Mars is heaven and that’s where we go to retire.

      I hold to the opinion that a true spaceship will offer one gravity and earth radiation. The only way I have come up with is using a segmented water filled spinning torus. These segments are designed as wet workshops. The only system that is going to push a good segment into lunar orbit for one of these spaceships is a Heavy Lift Vehicle. Construct a disk in lunar orbit that spins with the ring of workshops and join then together with a suspension system. The disk is the pusher plate of a nuclear pulse propulsion system. On “top” of the disk is the ring and inside is the “deck” on which the H-bombs are carried. The whole things is put together in lunar orbit and then landed on the Moon right on top of or very close to some ice.

      This is the best mission I can think of for the SLS- to actually construct spaceships in lunar orbit. The 8 missions a year the two pads are currently able to provide can build a ship in how many missions? The space station made us experts on this. We can build such a spaceship with a certain number of heavy lift missions. Instead of sending a glider into earth orbit it would be sending an empty wet work shop upper stage to lunar orbit.

      Once the ship is constructed it is landed, filled with water, and launched. The ship can be landed again but probably only by making lighter by draining some of or all of water out of the radiation shield. Once the ship is back down the shield can be refilled. This kind of ship is just small enough to be landed on a low gravity icy moon where it can also function as an excavation camp for a base complex. A flow of ships landing and taking off would BE the Moon base.

      Assuming this is the most efficient design the remaining question is about what kind of spaceship are we going to build; how big? The basic requirement is for each wet workshop to provide 16 feet of water shielding in all direction. As you can imagine by this requirement the spaceship is going to mind-bogglingly large. We have to redesign our expectations about what is big and what is economical in terms of space travel.

  11. Robert Clark says:

    Interview with Chris Kraft:

    Apollo legend on NASA: ‘It’s a tragedy. It really is.’
    Tuesday, September 3, 2013

    A particularly telling part of the interview:

    A couple of weeks ago I had a pleasant morning at Johnson Space Center where they introduced eight bright, talented and accomplished new astronaut candidates. I couldn’t help but wonder where these men and women were going to fly to.

    For the last 10 years they’ve had trouble getting astronauts to go to the space station. I don’t know if you know that, but a lot of people don’t want to go to the space station. They don’t want to spend six months there. Three people have to take care of the station while three people do science. That’s three people 24 hours a day to keep the station operating. It’s not a very good job for an astronaut. Astronauts want to do something that has some excitement to it. The engineers that come to JSC want to do something. You go talk to the guys who were doing Constellation, and the reason they came to NASA was to go back to the moon. They’re all leaving now. The leaders are leaving for a lot of other reasons also, but they’re leaving because there’s no future that they want to be involved in. And that’s unfortunate. You’ve got to have a reason for people to give you their lives. Which is what I did. I gave NASA my life not because they asked me to, but because I wanted to. I had a reason. But I just don’t think that’s there now. The livelihood of the organization is not very good.

    Bob Clark

    • I don’t think most American astronauts want to be mere symbols of what use to be an awe inspiring pioneering space program. They want to be part of a– real– pioneering space program! The ISS program really needs to come to an end by 2020 so that NASA can move forward.

      Kraft was right about practically everyone in NASA and outside of NASA wanting to return to the Moon. But of course the current administration is extremely hostile to that idea.

      I did find it rather amusing that Bolden recently tried to scare Congress by saying that developing a lunar lander could cost $8 to $10 billion. Wow! That’s a bargain!

      The administration wants to fund the ISS LEO program at over $12 billion in just the next four years– not including the billions dedicated to the Commercial Crew LEO program over the same period. This LEO program was originally supposed to end in 2016. Now the continuation of the ISS and its continuing cost inflation is being used by the administration to trap NASA at LEO.

      America’s manned space program and its pioneering efforts will always be in trouble until NASA is finally allowed to make the next logical step of setting up a– permanent outpost– on the surface of the Moon.

      Marcel F. Williams

  12. Warren Platts says:

    Hi Paul: I know this is a little off topic, but we’re curious on your take on the latest article by Klima et al. in Nature that claims that hydroxyl bearing material excavated from a relatively deep, magmatic source was remotely detected from the central peak of Bullialdus Crater. Do you believe the hydroxyl represents juvenile water? Also, are the observations consistent with serpentinization happening?

  13. billgamesh says:

    “America’s manned space program and its pioneering efforts will always be in trouble until NASA is finally allowed to make the next logical step of setting up a– permanent outpost– on the surface of the Moon.”

    I was rethinking the whole Moon base thing last week Marcel and it occurred to me the water is what is important right now- in my opinion for cosmic radiation shielding.

    If the water is all we want right now I commented we could build a spaceship in lunar orbit and land it on or near the ice site. This pulse propelled ship would weigh several thousand tons and take a couple years to build telerobotically in lunar polar orbit. Like a more expensive space station. Once the spaceship has been landed on the surface and some compartments have been filled with water for a sanctuary it is in effect a Moon base until it takes off.

    I would add that our space program will never transport any large numbers of humans to other worlds without the use of nuclear propulsion and eventually a vast solar energy power beaming infrastructure.

    The public is dimly aware our space program is at this moment effectively dead with no way to send astronauts anywhere except a Low Earth Orbit space station on a Russian Soyuz. This was done over half a century ago I believe.

    The SLS is as good a vehicle as we are going to get for transporting fissionable material to the Moon. The use of nuclear energy is the only way to effect interplanetary travel at this time and if we are ever to go anywhere we will do it from a launch site outside the Earth’s magnetosphere. That would be the Moon.

  14. Robert Clark says:

    Congratulations Dr. Spudis on joining Moon Express. We will be returning to the Moon. It’s just that NASA doesn’t know it yet.

    Bob Clark

    • Paul Spudis says:


      Thanks. I wrote about the Moon Express association in a post on the other blog:

      Unfortunately, that site has been up and down the last few days (mostly down). Presumably, the IT people at Smithsonian are working on it.

      • Joe says:

        Finally got to look at the Once and Future Moon article.

        I assume that your intention in joining the project is to get as much of the Phase I Spudis/Lavoie plan accomplished as possible (independent of the current NASA leadership).

        I have no idea how much chance they have of success, but I certainly wish them (and you) luck.

        Any chance you can keep us posted as to how things are going?

        • Paul Spudis says:

          Actually, my first objective is to try and help the Moon Express team prove their credentials by getting something safely on the lunar surface, which is challenging enough. Poles are definitely a goal eventually, but first things first.

          I hope to keep everybody here informed on our progress. Thanks.

  15. billgamesh says:

    “Is space really a “frontier” in the sense that we usually understand that term?


    Perhaps the biggest problem space advocates have with promoting exploration is this falling back on analogy to explain. I have yet to hear an analogy that will convince an intelligent, unbiased, and informed person they should support an expanded space program. Analogies do more harm than good when explaining space travel in my experience. Analogy is about matching similar themes and there is no similar theme to outer space. There are valid reasons for human spaceflight but they are not served well with comparisons to 16th century voyages of exploration or the centuries past colonization of newly discovered land masses.

    Space is not an ocean. It is not a wilderness with a frontier. It is essentially a hard vacuum seething with radiation. The other bodies in our solar system that could conceivably be reached by humans are uninhabitable. There is no “new world” out there- unless we create it.

    So I have to disagree with the idea of space as a frontier, or an ocean, or retirement plan, or whatever. The first best way to understand space is as a threat. And that concept is what landed humans on the Moon in the first place. I believe the second best way to understand space is as a resource. The giant fusion reactor hanging in the sky is what keeps us alive and we always need more energy. And the third way is to understand space as an occupation. Whether this occupation is calculating orbits for communications satellites, deflecting an impact threat, or harvesting solar energy, the place where this occupation earns a living is space.

    Threat first, resource second, occupation third.

    • Paul Spudis says:

      Threat first, resource second, occupation third.

      All frontiers have these qualities — and more. It does not diminish or negate the the argument that space is a frontier by recognizing its diverse properties and characteristics.

      I prefer to put resources first, mainly because the “threat” aspect is so statistically remote that it does not make a good political argument for a vigorous program. But whatever floats your boat.

  16. Gary Miles says:

    One correction. There are NO private, commercial human spaceflights to LEO period. The extent of commercial human spaceflight have been wealthy citizens been ‘hitching’ rides on government rockets to the ISS for exorbitant fees. Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composite have managed to send several test flights of the White Knight/SpaceShipOne on parabolic arc to graze the edge of space. But these flights are not orbital. I have pointed out in other blogs that the X Prize was awarded in 2003 and Virgin/Scaled has yet to capitalize on its suborbital space venture even after 10 years of development. As to whether they will be successful remains to be seen, but their greatest source of revenue will likely come from government research contracts.

  17. billgamesh says:

    “All frontiers have these qualities — and more.”

    Not according to the dictionary; not a word in any definition I checked about a frontier being a threat or resource or occupation.

    But the semantics are there. Yes, frontiers on Earth are connected to these qualities historically. And everyone would wish space to be a new frontier people can explore and a place they can go to build a new life. My argument is that space is not like any frontier on Earth and referring to it in that context is counter-productive. The private space crowd has pretty much burned me out on lame analogies.

    I recently watched this NOVA program “can we make it to Mars?” narrated by Tyson.

    Go to 49:45 and Tyson gives some closing thoughts on the space “frontier” in agreement with Dr. Spudis. I think this program is an example of the popular culture message being promoted about human space flight; it’s too hard. Like Eugene Parker in his 2006 article on Shielding Space Travelers, Tyson states there is no solution to the cosmic radiation problem (11:45) and also states that zero G debilitation is problematic as well because constructing a spinning spaceship is not practical (11:20).

    I am very critical of these pronouncements and wish there was some media exposure contradicting this “it’s too hard” kind of popular science programming. There are solutions. Many of these limits and assumptions placed on progress seem to me either arbitrary or instigated by the constant howling of private space advocates that “it’s too expensive.”

    What floats my boat is solutions and they are out there but no company wants to work them because the paycheck is not big enough. No easy money in spaceships just as Tyson intimates.

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