The NRC Report – A Missed Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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45 Responses to The NRC Report – A Missed Opportunity

  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    While I can agree with some aspects of the report – e.g., the desire to remove any restrictions on working with China in space – I also tend to see this more as a missed opportunity than anything else. My concerns focus on the following:

    1. Setting the wrong tone, and report scope, with the title – The report title twice uses the word “exploration”, which does not imply permanence, progressive improvement, etc. This seems to have set the tone for the entire report, which also does not emphasize those things.

    The report’s title – and entire emphasis – should instead have been along the lines of, e.g.:
    “Pathways to Human Space Development: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Expansion into Space”.

    2. The Committee was required to “make recommendations to enable a sustainable U.S. human space flight program”; yet nowhere in the report is space sustainability ever defined. The closest it comes is this sentence: “a program in which humans operate beyond LEO on a regular basis—in other words, a sustainable human exploration program beyond LEO”.

    A recommended definition of “sustainability” incorporates economic sustainability:

    Sustainability is all about every step in the process bringing us closer to more affordable space permanence and Earth-independence. The ability to operate beyond low-Earth orbit in ever more affordable fashion is the key to a sustainable human space development program.
    3. Flawed Assumptions: The report repeatedly asserts that no beyond-LEO human program is sustainable with a budget that increases only enough to keep pace with inflation. This is based on flawed assumptions that NASA continues doing business as usual – doing the same things, in the same way – which automatically mean the case for human space development does not close. In fact, changing what NASA does, and just as importantly, how it does it, is the key to staying within sustainable, realistic, budgets. NASA’s major problem is not budget; $18b a year is a lot of money. By sidestepping the need for reform in what NASA does, and how it does it, the Committee skirts the most important issues.

    The flawed assumptions of continued NASA business-as-usual is the greatest weakness in the report.

    4 Goals vs. Destinations: “Planning for a human spaceflight program should begin with a choice about its goals—rather than a choice of possible destinations. Destinations should derive from goals, and alternative architectures may be weighed against those goals.” – Augustine Report
    The Goal should be to expand humanity’s presence, and humanity’s economy, into the solar system, in an increasingly sustainable fashion.
    5. Cancel anything not on the path to Mars? Decision Rule 5 in the report implies that anything….”that no longer contribute(s) to progress along the pathway….” to Mars, be divested from the human program as soon as possible, can repeat the mistake of Apollo of too narrowly focusing the entire program on one single destination. A balanced program that includes development of sustainable commercial infrastructure development along the way should also be considered.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-repeat the mistake of Apollo of too narrowly focusing the entire program on one single destination.”

      Actually, the mistake was made when we stopped focusing on the Moon. We went cheap with the space shuttle trying to make our space program pay for itself.

      You have it backwards; it was “-sustainable commercial infrastructure development-” that was the mistake. The only sustainable commercial activity possible without a lunar infrastructure was the satellite market. We killed people on a do everything vehicle that sacrificed escape systems so it could carry those money makers.

      Now we have to start over and go back to the Moon. One focus. One destination.

      • Chris Castro says:

        “One focus, one destination”,……..I quite agree! This trying to go in all directions all at once, trying to be all things to all people, has gotten NASA literally nowhere! The Moon should be our prime intermediate destination, and Mars should actually be put on the back-burner, for a while. The immense technological advances that will arise from a concentrated Lunar effort, will as a by-product enrich & make more viable the concept of a future Mars venture.

    • billgamesh says:

      “NASA’s major problem is not budget; $18b a year is a lot of money.”

      Really? If you look at how much of that goes to human spaceflight it is a problem if we ever expect to see human beings beyond Earth orbit. Any of that going into stopping the next dinosaur killer from ending civilization? No. Any of that going into replacing our GEO satellite junkyard with shielded spinning semi-permanent space stations? No. Any of that going into space solar power that will supply the entire world with a western standard of living? No. Is NASA building nuclear reactors for space exploration? No. Is NASA building landers to exploit lunar ice resources? No. Is NASA funding a space launch system schedule that will match that of the space shuttle? No.

      It is not a lot of money.

      Doubling the NASA budget would be the minimum. Tripling it would be a start. Quadrupling it would actually make progress. And you think 18 billion is a lot? You may want to consider the couple trillion dollars we spent over the last 10+ years on two countries we are in the process of leaving that will be exactly the same as when we arrived. The same was true of the military adventure we spent hundreds of billions of equivalent dollars on in the 60’s during Apollo that was largely responsible for ending the first space age.

      NASA’s major problem IS budget. Should we be spending several times the amount we presently are on space? Considering planetary protection, planetary connectivity, and planetary energy issues, I would say yes. Absolutely. If we are just considering landing someone on Mars? No. Absolutely not.

  2. NASA’s human spaceflight priorities should be focused on finding out if humans can permanently live, work, and reproduce off the Earth: on the Moon, Mars, and within rotating artificial gravity habitats deployed at one of the Earth-Moon Lagrange points. Additionally, NASA should be focused on achieving these goals as safely and as economically as possible.

    Finding out if the human species can live and work permanently beyond the Earth would of course have enormous social, strategic, and economic consequences that could dramatically increase our economic wealth while also improving our quality of life both on and off the Earth.

    Space travel is not about climbing the highest mountain (the current manned spaceflight philosophy, IMO), its about pioneering an new frontier for the social and economic benefit of humanity.

    It seems obvious to me and to many others that the best way to dramatically reduce the cost of traveling to the Moon and Mars while sustaining permanent outpost on those new worlds is by utilizing– extraterrestrial resources– for air, water, fuel, and radiation shielding.

    Its really not about government vs. private industry since both government space programs and private space programs are– mutually beneficial to each other. Its about simply doing what is logical in order to pioneer the New Frontier so that the privateers and settlers can eventually follow!


    • billgamesh says:

      “Its about simply doing what is logical in order to pioneer the New Frontier so that the privateers and settlers can eventually follow!”

      “Privateers” are….another term for pirates Marcel- I told you once before about that. And a “settler” is usually the term used for a farmer developing a parcel of wilderness.

      “-a long-term dynamic that moves humanity into space – the dynamic that gets us there. Once we possess the ability to get there, people will have the freedom to choose from an infinite spectrum of activities and rationales.”

      The dynamic that will move humanity into space was correctly identified by Gerard K. O’Neill. Energy. Until the several million tons of solar arrays are manufactured in lunar factories and lifted into GEO I think the pilgrim’s plea will have to wait. What is logical is to take the first steps and I believe the precursor industry will be GEO telecommunications space stations.

    • billgamesh says:

      “NASA’s human spaceflight priorities should be focused on finding out if humans can permanently live, work, and reproduce off the Earth-”

      If? Of course they can. The only question is how to furnish an Earth environment….while not on Earth.

      NASA’s human spaceflight priority should be focused on one thing; the water resources on the Moon. The water is what will allow humans to function in cislunar space. Whether it is GEO commercial space stations or a permanent Moon colony, or any hope of interplanetary travel, it depends on water. This is the first step that enables all other things. The NRC report completely missed this.

  3. Vladislaw says:

    Without property rights capital will not move to Luna, without private capital, the way congress requires NASA to do business it will never get enough funding because of the pork premium left over from the Apollo era.

    • billgamesh says:

      One man’s pork is another man’s bacon; without NASA the magic capitalism of Musk would not be the wonder it is today. I never fail to be amazed at the bizarre collective cognitive deficit of the New Space mob that damns the space agency at every turn but would have no hobby rocket without billions in free NASA support. The happiest event for space exploration will be when SpaceX goes out of business. With no ISS to transport people to (still years away) there is no reason for inferior kerosene lift vehicles. Getting rid of that albatross should be the first item on the new “pathway.”

      • Robert Clark says:

        I don’t criticize NASA at every turn. We’ll agree to disagree on this one, but I happen to think the commercial cargo program was one of the most cost-effective programs NASA has ever done.
        Necessity is the mother of invention, and this low cost approach was born of necessity. Other extraordinarily successful examples at NASA were born out of a need to be low cost. The LCROSS mission was profoundly important because it proved ice deposits at the lunar poles, so important for lower cost interplanetary missions. Yet it accomplished this under a forced low cost approach.
        I also think NASA’s Morpheus lander program will come to be regarded as extremely important because it will show how low cost a manned lunar lander actually can be developed.

        Bob Clark

        • Joe says:

          Hi Bob,

          I do not want to dwell on the cost effectiveness of the CRS contract since it is off topic for this post, however, since you brought it up:
          (1) SpaceX CRS contract is to deliver 20 Metric Tons to the ISS for $1.6 Billion ($80,000/kg)
          (2) Orbital Sciences CRS contract is to deliver 20 Metric Tons to the ISS for $1.9 Billion ($95,000/kg).

          Until those contracts were signed, I was told that the Space Shuttle rate of $71,000/kg was “unsustainable”.

          Now both SpaxeX and Orbital Sciences are so far behind in there launch schedules that NASA has had to extend the contract time frames by two years to allow SpaxeX and Orbital Sciences to appear to be meeting the terms of the contract

          To paraphrase Arthur Dent (from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) – “this must be some new definition of cost effective we have never encountered before.”

          Now I hope we can return to the topic of the proper goals and approach for the American Space Effort without further SpaceX commercials being inserted.

          • billgamesh says:

            Sidemount was the way to go; a missed opportunity that should be a warning to all. Instead the flexible path has become a dead end and more billions have been flushed.

          • billgamesh says:


            Here is something more on topic Joe. Perhaps a modified version of this technique could be adapted to lunar regolith derived materials.

          • Joe says:

            Good one.

            Interesting technology to keep of which to keep track

            Thanks for the link.

          • Vladislaw says:

            You forgot the word MINIMUM in the amount of cargo SpaceX was contracted. You are then assuming that not one single pound of cargo above that amount was possible. NASA chooses how much cargo, by weight, to put on the dragon, If you add up the total MAXIMUM amount of cargo dragon could deliver, if NASA chose to it is different. You also do not include any downcargo costs. If Nasa did not have dragon, how much would NASA have to pay for each pound of down cargo?

          • Joe says:

            You are going to believe whatever you want, but here are a few more facts.

            The SpaceX contract called for them to deliver 20 Metric Tons of up mass to the ISS in 12 flights by the end of 2015. On average that means by now (about half way through the contract period) they should have flown 6 times and delivered 10 Metric Tons (22,000 lbs.).

            They have flown only 3 times and (by their on metrics) delivered only 7,080 lbs. of up mass.

            As my original post linked NASA has been forced to extend the contract period by two years to give SpaceX a chance to meet the minimum terms of the contract.

            If you must believe that NASA is for some incomprehensible reason forcing SpaceX to underperform that is your privilege, but this subject is off topic for this discussion. There are plenty of other forums where you can go to sing SpaceX praises.

    • How the Moon is exploited is up to the governments who have signed the Outer Space Treaty which states:

      “The Moon and its natural resources are the common heritage of mankind,….”

      “States Parties to this Agreement hereby undertake to establish an international regime, including appropriate procedures, to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the Moon as such exploitation is about to become feasible.

      The main purposes of the international regime to be established shall include:

      (a) The orderly and safe development of the natural resources of the Moon;

      (b) The rational management of those resources;

      (c) The expansion of opportunities in the use of those resources;

      (d) An equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived
      from those resources, whereby the interests and needs of the developing countries, as well as the efforts of those countries which have contributed either directly or indirectly to the exploration of the Moon, shall be given special consideration.”

      “Any State Party to the Treaty may propose amendments to this Treaty. Amendments shall enter into force for each State Party to the Treaty accepting the amendments upon their acceptance by a majority of the States Parties to the Treaty and thereafter for each remaining State Party to the Treaty on the date of acceptance by it.”

      But you don’t necessarily need to own something in order to be able to exploit it! The owners of the Moon, humankind, can simply lease out lunar territory for exploitation in exchange for monetary compensation from the leases.

      So if I were the US government, I’d introduce rules to the Outer Space treaty that would allow governments to lease lunar territory for up to 40 years for $1 million a year per square kilometer (a mere $25 million a year for 25 square kilometers of continuous territory in a particular area).

      Governments leasing lunar territory can then sub-lease parts of all of their leased territory to private industry for an equal or higher price. Revenue from annual government leasing payments should be distributed equally amongst all States Parties to the treaty. Such a distribution of revenues would obviously favor States Parties with the smallest populations. But the real money would be in the revenues generated from subleasing property to private industry– which would not be subject– to equitable redistribution amongst the States Parties.

      But I’d limit the amount of continuous territory a government could lease in one area on the Moon to about 25 square kilometers within a 10 kilometer maximum diameter. And I would not allow any nation to lease further territory within 100 kilometers distance of territory that they are already leasing. This would prevent wealthy nations from attempting to purchase huge amounts of continuous territory under their control. This would also allow practically all space faring nations to be able to lease a reasonable amount of territory in practically every region on the Moon.


  4. billgamesh says:

    “Many standard assumptions and clichés about human spaceflight are taken for granted and very little thinking “outside the box” is evident.”

    Follow the money is the general rule of thumb if you want to understand why something is happening. Interestingly, “rule of thumb” is not about money; it is about fear. Only fear trumps greed. Money, fear, and chance drive civilization. My own experiences have led me to believe that “standard assumptions” keep anything “outside the box” from getting in.

    Like the Augustine Commission, this report was not simply a logical assessment; there was a definite agenda. What exactly the schemes being deployed are we cannot know. Conspirators do not reveal details unless they are caught. It is of course not elaborate as conspiracies go- just greed. Bear a little false witness and do your part and you are rewarded while keeping your conscience clear embracing the clichés and being a team player. Politicians know how it works. The captains of industry giving the wink and the nudge on the golf course know how it works. The rest of us…….we believe what we read in reports and assume honesty.

    If by chance the next set of “deciders” makes some decision to rock the boat and space policy does change, it might be for the better. Or it might be for the worse. Some random event in the 2012 election might have found the United States with a President called upon to make real his campaign talk of “privatizing NASA.” Likewise the next two candidates will make speeches and be asked to comment on their leadership of the space program. What will they say? Probably what is in the NRC report. Which brings us back to that definite agenda.

    In my view the Apollo 1 fire was the critical event in bringing about the end of the space age in 1972. It showed the aerospace industry that space was going to be hard money. Unlike cold war toys any spacecraft carrying humans would have to work as advertised. No expensive miracle weapons that in reality had little actual effectiveness to sell at huge profit. There was no making up imaginary threats in space; the threats were real. There was no fooling the rocket equation.

    The Kennedy administration used fear of the Soviet Union to exercise political power and create new regimes and territory to bring into play for their party. A certain German rocket scientist stepped in. We landed on the Moon. The space age ended. If a new space age is to begin then a new chance to manipulate with fear and greed must be found. Otherwise the powers that be will keep on making money the way they have been.

    In regards to actually beginning another space age if somehow the opportunity arises; Eugene Parker explained it in 2006. Radiation is square one and the water on the Moon is the only practical source of the massive shielding required for humans to be effective above LEO in cislunar space. The “standard assumptions” do not allow this reality to be accepted and as long as the denial continues there will be zero progress.

    • Michael Wright says:

      >Like the Augustine Commission, this report was not simply a logical assessment;
      > there was a definite agenda.

      I read someplace (I believe Dennis Wingo’s Moon Rush) that first Augustine Commission was loaded with planetary scientists so they advocated intangible benefits rather than specific objectives involving hardware to fly humans beyond LEO. Then Wayne Hale wanted his name removed from Augustine II Commission report because options to be presented had to be limited to no more than $3B, Wayne felt there were options costing more than $3B but were worthy of a nation’s goals.

      I don’t have exact memory but I think even our forum host Paul Spudis wrote many commissions are stacked with people with specific interests to meet an agenda.

  5. William Mellberg says:

    One thing always seems to be missing from the various committees, commissions and panels that have pondered the future of America’s space program … transportation experts. Just one airline president could contribute a lot of ideas, and a big dose of reality, to any such group. Fred Smith, for instance. He founded Fed Ex. Forty years ago, while I was working for Fokker Aircraft, a young Fred Smith walked into our office one day to talk about buying F.28 jets to replace his original fleet of small, French-built Falcon jets. In the end, Fokker could not deliver F.28s quickly enough, and Smith went with Boeing 727s instead. Before we (Fokker) lost Smith’s business, he gave me a tour of his operation in Memphis. Some people, including Smith’s university professors, said his small package airline idea would never work. But I saw it working with my own eyes. It was an incredible concept. Dozens of small jets flew small packages to Memphis each evening. Those packages were sorted and re-routed. A few hours later, the same fleet of small jets carried those small packages to their final destinations. And while the scale has grown enormously, that is still the basic system Fed Ex uses. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Fred Smith did not come up with Fed Ex out of the blue. His father owned a bus company, and Smith was quite familiar with the economics and operations of transportation systems. The same basic principles apply to bus lines, rail lines, ship lines and air lines. It’s all a matter of moving people and goods from Point A to Point B at the cheapest cost. It is also a matter of serving an actual market. In other words, if there was no need for Fred Smith’s small package service, Fed Ex never would have gotten off the ground. But Smith knew there was an existing market for such a service. The Railway Express Agency had already been serving that market for years.

    This is where “commercial” space hits a brick wall. Other than commercial satellites, where is the need or the demand for human space flight? Where is the mass market?

    There isn’t one. Other than the International Space Station, there is no demand for routine transportation services to and from space. There are no Points A and B.

    However ….

    If space is to be developed and settled, we need a destination that serves a purpose. And that destination is the Moon, for all of the reasons Dr. Spudis has so eloquently detailed over the years.

    Dr. Spudis has also talked about the need for a cislunar transportation system — a “space railway.” And he is absolutely correct!

    Like the early transcontinental railroads, it will take quite some time for a space railway to produce any returns on initial investments. When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines were built, they crossed vast expanses of empty land. Between Omaha and Sacramento, there were very few cities. But creating a transportation infrastructure opened the way for economic development and human settlement in the American West. And look at the West today!

    All of which is a very long way of saying that Dr. Spudis is absolutely correct when he talks about creating a logical transportation system, starting in cislunar space, if we are ever going to see sustained space exploration and settlement beyond LEO.

    We also need a destination with resources. While the transcontinental railroad was being built, water and supplies often had to be shipped to the End of the Line. That was costly. So the surveyors looked for local sources of water and timber (for railway ties) wherever they could. The Moon will provide useful resources to the builders of the space railway. And those resources will enable that railway to expand and grow.

    Wernher von Braun laid out a logical plan for a space transportation network six decades ago. Apollo chose a different path because of geopolitics. We were trying to meet a deadlines rather than creating a sustainable infrastructure. Which is why, as Dr. Spudis has noted previously, von Braun was such a keen supporter of the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle, despite its flaws, went back to his original transportation architecture. And it certainly offered a preview of “things to come.”

    Bottomline: Get some people with actual transportation experience on these committees and commissions so that some measure of reality can be included in the mix!

    One last comment … NASA did, in fact, consult with two airlines about maintenance operations while planning the Space Shuttle. You might recall that the original turnaround time for the Shuttles was supposed to be two weeks. That never happened. But NASA did learn something about vehicle processing from those airlines. Which is why someone like Fred Smith needs to be included on the next space planning committee.

    • billgamesh says:

      “You might recall that the original turnaround time for the Shuttles was supposed to be two weeks. That never happened. But NASA did learn something about vehicle processing from those airlines.”

      The entire airline philosophy the shuttle was based on turned out to be a complete failure in practice. With half the planet covered in large oceans to splash down in requiring a few hundred pounds of parachute we wasted most of the lift of a Saturn V class vehicle on a 60 ton high speed glider that had to make a pinpoint emergency landing to return people to Earth.

      NASA did learn something; wishful thinking is no replacement for escape systems. The only part of the shuttle system that ever worked well was the one that was most often blamed for failure; the Solid Rocket Boosters. Recovering and reusing them did not save any money but did allow them to be inspected after each use and this led to 200 flawless firings in a row. The far more powerful monolithic SRB would have cost about 4 times less to reuse because they were not broken down into 4 segments. But the company in Utah had to transport by rail so this was not to be. I wonder if the airlines said anything about that?

      The SSME’s could never be even remotely considered airline type equipment. They were extremely high performance “hot rods” and very expensive. But if you are going to haul a large heavy delta wing and tons of airframe, landing gear, and cargo bay up into space and have any payload left over then this most troublesome item had to be. The engine with the most balanced mix of power, efficiency, and economy in the world- the RS-68A- is a direct result of the shuttle main engine saga and came about by way of rejecting reusability and building for simplicity and success.

      I have read quite a bit on the shuttle and could go on criticizing but in conclusion, in my view, the most important part of the space transportation system should have been the only part that was thrown away- the external tank. The Von Braun wet workshop concept is the only reusability scheme that makes any sense when dealing with the rocket equation. The primary requirement for Human Space Flight is humans. Human beings require a good deal of space to function for any length of time. One need only consider that a single shuttle external tank had more interior space than the ISS.

  6. Robert Clark says:

    Thanks for that analysis of the report. I read that the report preferred a return to the Moon as a stepping-stone to a Mars mission, but I wasn’t aware it didn’t consider the possibility of using lunar resources such as lunar propellant to simplify interplanetary missions.
    A few reasons why this is considered a bridge too far:

    First, there is the issue of the lander. As I’ve argued a manned lunar lander can be developed at a few ten’s of million dollars range, not the $10 billion of the Altair.

    Secondly, there is the misconception of the needed launch costs. ULA has done studies on using Centaur-derived stages for in-space propulsion elements. As a rule of thumb such a stage can carry about as much payload to a 3,000 m/s delta-v as its propellant load. This means the gross mass would be about twice the payload mass (since the dry mass of the stage is only 10% of the propellant mass.). To land on the Moon requires about 6,000 m/s delta-v . So this would be an additional doubling of the required mass, to four times that of the payload mass. Say you wanted to land 6 mT to the lunar surface for cargo, that would be 24 mT needed for IMLEO. Even at $24,000 per kilo this would be only $240 million.
    Also the round trip delta-V to the lunar surface is 9,000 m/s, requiring an another factor of two multiple for the total mass. So if the manned capsule weighed 6 mT that would be 48 mT IMLEO. This would cost $480 million in launch cost.

    Thirdly, the idea is getting the infrastructure to do the propellant manufacture from water ice is believed to be too expensive to produce. This is an important issue that needs to be tested on Earth. My opinion is that it can be done much less expensively than thought. I would like to see this tested for example in periglacial regions on Earth. One method that might lower cost for this for example might be rather than using robotic tractors to collect the ice, covering the area with a water-vapor impervious cover to collect the water vapor produced from the sunlight-melted ice.

    Bob Clark

    • I prefer using mobile machines that utilize microwaves to heat and trap vaporized water ice into cold traps with the machine. I call such mobile machines, Water Bugs on my blogs.

      The Water Bugs would then transport their water to mobile water tankers that would transport the water to fuel producing lunar depots on the lunar surface or in water bags on the lunar surface.


      • billgamesh says:

        Water Bugs……very cool. We called the water storage tanks we towed around in the field “water buffaloes” in the Army 30 years ago. I don’t know if they still call them that.

  7. Robert Clark says:

    In the second point above, the price per kilo to LEO I should have quoted was $10,000 per kilo, not $24,000. Also, the doubling of the IMLEO with each additional 3,000 m/s of delta-v is coming from adding an additional, Centaur-like, stage.

    In the third point about low cost water extracting methods there have been experiments on using microwaves to extract water on Mars and the Moon without using digging:

    Microwaves Could Extract Water From Moon And Mars — ScienceDaily
    “Oct 21, 2008 – Research conducted by material scientists may lead to the ability to extract water from the Moon and possibly Mars by shooting microwave …”

    I think it might also work though to use sunlight concentrated by lenses or mirrors to accomplish the same thing. These methods including the robotic digging approach should be tested on areas on Earth known to contain subsurface ice.

    Also, quite key to remember is once you have the propellant production set up on the Moon, which I argue can be done more easily than realized, you get easily lunar-derived propellant depots both in lunar orbit and in a Earth orbit. Then since 90% of a Centaur-like stage is propellant, the low launch costs I mentioned in the second point would be reduced again by a factor of 10.

    Bob Clark

    • billgamesh says:

      The propellant depot in cislunar space is a controversial subject to me. My reasoning on depots is based on the idea that GEO satellites will be replaced by large space station “wheels” as envisioned by Von Braun, Clarke, and others. These water filled space stations would be assembled in lunar orbit out of empty rocket stages. Such multi-thousand ton space stations would be able to manufacture their own station keeping propellent out of water drawn from the radiation shield.

      With these large stations and “tugs” launched from the lunar surface there would be no use for depots of fuel. Transferring cryogenic propellents is a mess and best avoided. Water on the other hand is the opposite. Hydrogen is very difficult to handle and while practical for use in launch vehicles from Earth and for storing in an underground lunar facility, methane is a much better proposition for zero boil-off systems used in “tugs” that will be moving objects around cislunar space. Why methane and oxygen would need to be transferred to or from a depot in space is not clear to me. In my view it would be far easier for these tugs to land back on the Moon to be “turned around.”

      • Hydrogen only comprises about 14% of the total fuel requirements for a space vehicle. And NASA has already developed technologies for actively re-liquifying hydrogen ullage gases. So liquid hydrogen can be stored at fuel depots in space and on the Moon for years with zero boil-off with only meager solar power requirements.

        Of course, since crewed missions to and from the lunar surface will probably occur only a few times per year, potential fuel could be perpetually stored as water until being converted into fuel a few weeks or a few months before a crewed mission.


        • billgamesh says:

          14 percent? ZBO for years with meager requirements? Missions to and from the lunar surface only a few times a year? Hmmmm.

          Hydrogen is very complicated stuff to deal with at close to absolute zero. Radiation penetrating tanks in space and zero gravity effects make these cited ideal boil-off rates questionable. The problem with re-liquifying or transferring hydrogen is pre-cooling the transfer system and the receiving tank. This is impossible to do very well and causes the exothermic form of hydrogen to form.

          “If orthohydrogen is not removed from liquid hydrogen, the heat released during its decay can boil off as much as 50% of the original liquid.[5]”

          The New Space infomercial always includes how easy everything is with inferior lift rockets because fuel depots will allow “stops at the gas station.” The gullible and uninformed buy it but the truth is there is no free lunch. Launching a vehicle using hydrogen from Earth is practical but dealing with it in space is a non-starter in my view. Lunar launches using hydrogen with no oxidizer at double the ISP in a beam propulsion system may be the best option for launching smaller payloads into cislunar space.

          Of course the really magnificent feature of a lunar launch site is being outside Earth’s magnetosphere there is no restriction on using nuclear energy. For lifting really big payloads this makes the Moon the ideal factory site for space solar power arrays. Once the first small power station is in GEO the energy may be used to power beam propulsion systems on much larger arrays approaching Earth from the Moon and facilitate their insertion into GEO.

          • 1. Your not going to– instantly lose– 50% of the hydrogen stored in a fuel tank

            2. At a fuel depot, you’re not re-liquifying the entire hydrogen fuel tank– only the daily or hourly ullage gases that are produced.

            3. A Lagrange point space depot capable of storing 70 tonnes of fuel, only 10 tonnes would be in the form of liquid hydrogen. Only 0.13% of hydrogen would be lost per day in a well insulated fuel depot. So only 13 kg of ullage gases would have to be re-liquified per day in order to have zero boil-off. And you’d have plenty of solar power available to re-liquify the hydrogen.

            4. But, again, most of the time, hydrogen and oxygen could be stored in the form of– water– at an orbiting or ground depot until there is a need to produce cryofuel a few days, weeks or months before a vehicle arrives to be refueled.


      • Joe says:

        Just a point of reference that there are other orbital habitat designs than a torus, here is a representation of “Astropolis”. This design came from the advanced planning division (then – in the 1960’s) North American Rockwell under the direction of Krafft Ehricke.

        The representation is from a 1971 TV Movie called Earth II.

        • Robert Clark says:

          Rather similar to the ISS. On the TV show was there artificial gravity?

          Bob Clark

          • Joe says:

            Modular yes, so in that sense it was like the ISS, but much larger.

            The launch vehicle would have been an HLV based on the Saturn V, so each of the cylindrical modules would have been a little larger than the Skylab.

            There would have been Pseudo Gravity. Notice that it is symmetric around its axis. In fact one of the plot lines of the movie involved having to temporarily stop the habitats rotation.

            The station was part of an overall architecture (in the Rockwell studies) that would have eventually included a lunar base with mining capabilities. The whole system was to eventually grow to support large applications satellites and interplanetary vehicles.

            The movie was a pilot for a proposed series (it did not sell) called “The Olympians” that would have followed the development of those capabilities.

  8. billgamesh says:

    “-the rules of spaceflight could be fundamentally and favorably altered through the harvesting and use of lunar water. None of these new, game-changing results are acknowledged in the report.”

    Water is the only game-changer. It is THE game-changer. The importance of this resource was not recognized when evidence of deposits were detected in 2009 and is still not appreciated. It was indeed the Chandrayaan mission Dr. Spudis was involved in that marked a complete change in the outlook for humankind expanding into space. It was also when I personally became very interested in space exploration. Why is the water so important? In 2006 Eugene Parker published an article in Scientific American that explains why. Parker basically stated that space travel is impractical because of the mass of cosmic ray shielding required; a bare minimum of 400 tons for a small capsule. For a spaceship capable of long duration missions this mass would be well over 1000 tons for a small crew. This is completely rejected by the Human Space Flight community for obvious reasons. There is no way to propel such masses around the solar system, let alone economically lift it out of Earth’s gravity well.

    Except there IS a way to propel such multi-thousand ton masses. The concept has been validated and endorsed and will work and work well. The problem is that nuclear pulse propulsion cannot be used in Earth’s magnetosphere because the fallout eventually reenters the atmosphere. The nuclear pulse engine is a dumb mass of metal that only becomes efficient when it, like space radiation shielding, masses in the thousands of tons. The water on the Moon is the key to space travel because it makes the shielding and the means to propel it practical. This reality is fundamentally rejected by those holding to “the standard assumptions.”

    The obstacles are establishing an industrial infrastructure on the Moon and transporting fissionable material safely. The funding could be made available by way of the DOD for planetary protection. Considering how much a single nuclear aircraft carrier costs (14 billion dollars) it might be justifiable spending the same amount on a spaceship capable of asteroid and comet interdiction. The commercial application is water filled space stations capable of replacing the present GEO satellites with a far superior human crewed network. These precursors lead to space solar energy, beam propulsion, and space colonies. The water on the Moon discovered 5 years ago was and is the single greatest opportunity ever handed to humankind. It makes the beginning of a new space age an order of magnitude easier.

    Not a word about any of this in the NRC report.

  9. billgamesh says:

    This article from 2008 is interesting; the dust is another resource is it not? It would seem to me to be particularly easy on the Moon to separate and melt down the different elements. The elements I am most interested in are metals that can be poured into monolithic plates for propulsion and silicon that can be used in solar panels. There are questions that could have been addressed about using the lower gravity, vacuum, and solar energy available to facilitate manufacture of very large monolithic pieces of metal alloy (in the multi-thousand ton range) and very large solar arrays (for potentially immense space solar power stations in GEO).

    It would have been a good idea to consult with industry experts on this in the NRC report. Another missed opportunity.

    • The microwave sintering of the surface areas of Lunar and Martian outpost will be essential, IMO.


    • Chris Castro says:

      Intriguing article! At around the same time frame, “Astronomy” magazine had a similar article, noting the dangers that could be posed by the regolith dust.

      • Chris Castro says:

        It was pointed out that some kind of dust-management equipment would be needed for Lunar expeditions which lasted any longer than the Apollo ones did. Some sort of magnetic vacuum-cleaners could perhaps be used in the air-lock chambers, for minimizing the amount of regolith dust being trailed into the main cabin areas, of the landers & habitation modules, plus reduce the amounts that could linger on the space-suits, particularly at the joint & seal points.

        Grappling with this gritty dust issue on the Moon first, would be most wise. Can you imagine if a straight-to-the-Red-Planet, spaceflight roadmap would prevail, and our astronauts have to first face this problem on an ultra-long Mars expedition, instead? The Mars enthusiasts are being very naive, with their assumptions that a human landing & surface stay there, would be an easy cakewalk, from-the-outset!

        • Joe says:

          Mitigation techniques for the problem were in work under Constellation Systems when it was cancelled.

          One to add to your list is the suit port concept where the Pressure Garment Assembly (PGA) would remain outside the pressurized volume except when maintenance was required.

          • Chris Castro says:

            @Joe;……..Yeah, so much good new research & planning was underway, during the Constellation project’s years of being alive, 2004 to 2010. Isn’t it an immense shame, that all those technology & systems studies, on planet-reaching & planetary-surface operations had to be terminated as well?! In any event, the written reports about those laboratory studies, should ideally come out, and be reviewed by the space engineering community & space interest community. Prototypes for new space-suits, new lunar roving cars, & dust management methods for use on board landers, will all be significant data reports, relevant when the time in the future arrives, that a manned Moon initiative is finally realistic & officially supported by the government, again.

          • Michael Wright says:

            Reading John Young’s book “Forever Young” he wrote about spacesuits getting larger and heavier but with new materials developed since Apollo, they should work on smaller lighter spacesuits. John also wrote, “JSC is still wanting their monster suit.”

            However, about 10 or 15 years ago their was a prototype suit that Ames was developing, it wasn’t small but hardshell design means no need to acclimate to reduced pressure like they do now.

          • Joe says:

            The hard suit you are referring to appears to be the AX-5 suit design developed by Hubert (Vic) Vykukal of the Ames Research Center. The suit was a contender to be used in the Space Station Freedom (now ISS) program, but was not selected for a number of reasons including:
            – Crew Comfort
            – Weight
            – Cost

            It was decided to continue using the basic Pressure Garment Assembly (PGA) from the shuttle program. However, the new low torque bearing design that Vykukal developed for the AX-5 was incorporated into an upgraded version of the Shuttle PGA for use on both the Shuttle and ISS. Vykukal is a brilliant designer and those bearings are terrific.


        • Robert Clark says:

          Another possibility is applying shrink-wrap to the astronauts spacesuit every time they go out. This would be disposable and removed before they enter the living quarters.

          Bob Clark

  10. Chris Castro says:

    Having an astronaut team emplaced on the Moon, and surviving adequately for multiple weeks, will be the ideal test of space surface-module systems. Also ideal, will be the concept of leaving unattended, parked in lunar orbit, of the main trans-lunar craft, for the duration of the surface stay. This alone would be a big test of our space vehicle capabilities, something that has never been done before. Even if on the beginning expeditions we were to use a Command Module Pilot, to fly a solo vigil there, for cautionary reasons, while our vehicles are being first tested, and the surface-stay times are short enough.

    Plus, the landing of an unmanned cargo lander————a variant of the regular crew lander, minus the ascent engine requirement————–in advance of the crew’s arrival, would also be a brilliant development, which has never been acheived before. (Another flight plan, would be to have this cargo-only version arrive in Low Lunar Orbit, while astronauts are in another orbiter vehicle, during a lunar trip, and have the unmanned cargo vehicle landed under the supervision of them, for improved chances of success. The base or equipment module could then be used by that crew or the next one to be sent out.)

    All of these items are much-needed capabilities, which’ll be needed in advance of ANY interplanetary manned trip. We’ve been squandering & wasting so much valuable time & effort in mere Low Earth Orbit, when all the while the REAL challenging destination has been looming in the night sky, a three-days trip away!

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