Unexpected Connections: The Strategic Defense Initiative and Space Resources

Possible layout of a Brilliant Pebble. The Clementine spacecraft carried the sensor suite that this vehicle would have used. (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

The recent successful interception of a ballistic missile in flight recalls earlier fevered debates of the 1980s and 90s over the “feasibility” of missile defense. Back then, “settled science” declared that missile defense was either impossible, or of such technical difficulty as to make the eventual deployment of a working system extremely unlikely. Although such “expert” judgment aligned more with political inclination than with sound technical assessment, it served its intended and useful media purpose of providing “proof” that SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), initiated in 1983, would never work. A similar set of circumstances exists today, as development and use of space resources to create new spaceflight capabilities faces familiar objections and roadblocks.

Leveraging access and capability in space through the use of the material and energy resources found in space gained traction during the initial study phases of SDI. Such a connection is logical – SDI was a program designed to establish a significant space presence by using a number of satellite assets with widely varying requirements (depending on their function: observation, monitoring, interdiction, or protection). Research initially focused on the deployment of unmanned systems from Earth, but it soon became apparent that the significant mass requirements needed by space-based missile defense put a strain on then-existing launch costs and capabilities. Most mass (weight) required in space is “dumb” mass (i.e., low information density) such as bulk material for shielding and protection, and propellant for the movement of assets throughout near-Earth space. Extended human missions beyond LEO faced similar difficulties. Thus, finding and using materials and energy from space-based sources became a topic of interest in both areas of research.

In 1983, a group of planetary scientists and defense space experts considered the acquisition and uses of space resources to support our national strategic needs. The report from this meeting recommended a research program designed to assess whether, and how, space resources from near-Earth asteroids and the Moon might be accessed and deployed. Their work considered a variety of needs for such a system, including orbital transfer vehicles (to move payloads between low Earth orbit and higher regions of cislunar space), propellant depots, and the use of bulk material to shield and protect satellite assets. Participants in the workshop included people from the NASA Johnson Space Center who were studying lunar base concepts, so the marriage of these two streams of inquiry occurred very early. This cross-fertilization continued with additional meetings and conferences during the 1980s, where the problems and benefits of using space resources were further examined.

Meanwhile, research in SDI techniques continued apace. Although a variety of approaches were studied, space-based missile defense architectures eventually moved from laser and particle beam weapons to kinetic energy interceptors, largely because there was less technical risk associated with such a system (we already knew that a high-velocity impact could destroy a target). A group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory led by Dr. Edward Teller developed one such system called Brilliant Pebbles (BP). The Brilliant Pebble concept used swarms of small satellites, each with its own independent sensing, computing, and propulsion capabilities. The spacecraft were small (“pebbles” – each a few 10s of kg) yet possessed significant autonomy and computing capacity (“brilliant”); when deployed by the thousands, they would create robust redundancy and thus, reliability. The Brilliant Pebbles concept took advantage of a variety of new advanced technologies already developed to support defense applications and applied them to the deep space mission of strategic missile defense.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush announced the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that included a permanent return to the Moon and a future human mission to Mars. The Synthesis Group, chaired by Astronaut Thomas Stafford, was convened in 1990 by the White House to study architectures for this program. The assembled group considered a variety of architectures made up from “waypoints” that described a capability or a theme; several waypoint themes featured the use of space resources, including the Fuels, Energy and Asteroids Waypoints. It was proposed to use materials and energy from both asteroids and the Moon to augment capabilities for people on the Moon and in deep space. I was part of this study team and participated in defining these waypoints. Another member of the team was Dr. Stewart Nozette, who had edited the 1983 workshop report and was then employed by Lawrence Livermore on Brilliant Pebbles.

Nozette’s idea – testing the BP sensor suite and providing operational experience with a small, semi-autonomous spacecraft by flying a “Brilliant Pebble” – was the concept that became Clementine, the 1994 mission that flew to the Moon. In the course of 74 days, Clementine globally mapped the Moon in 11 colors in the visible and near-infrared, allowing us to map the location of resources (notably, iron and titanium) on the Moon. But the real payoff came from an improvised experiment that beamed radio waves into the dark regions near the lunar poles. By measuring the properties of reflected radio echoes from the poles, we found that water ice, long suspected by some planetary scientists, exists in the dark areas.

Some scientists were not convinced that ice was what we’d detected, largely on the grounds that the enhancement in same sense echoes seen in the Clementine radar data could also be cause by surface roughness. Thus began a decade-long debate over the meaning of the Clementine results. The debate was eventually resolved with additional data from subsequent missions, such as Lunar Prospector (which found enhanced hydrogen at the poles), India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission (that found polar ice using imaging radar), the LRO mission (a variety of spectral and remote evidence for water) and finally, the LCROSS spacecraft (which kicked up water ice particles and vapor by the impact of an empty Centaur stage near the south pole of the Moon). It is now widely agreed that significant amounts of water ice exist near the lunar poles, although its form and distributions remain unknown.

Although the presence of water on the Moon generated a variety of plans to develop and use it, skepticism about using space resources remains. The essence of these complaints sound very familiar to anyone conversant with the debates over SDI in the 1980s – “it’s too expensive and it won’t work.” But more significantly, both developments – SDI and exploiting space resources – upset the existing paradigm. For SDI, the idea that we should actively defend ourselves rather than passively await our annihilation actually offended those devoted to the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction – the strategic paradigm under which we have lived for over half a century. As for space resource utilization, much of the current skepticism stems from the notion that we can somehow lower launch costs to a point, where everything we need in space, can be cheaply launched from Earth. One can see how this concept would be supported by much of the aerospace industry, as the development and operation of launch vehicles is a path of operation with known risks and rewards, while developing lunar propellant or making a lunar base through 3-D printing of lunar regolith, sounds like risky science-fiction.

The path to new and revolutionary capabilities is often littered with stumbling blocks and naysayers. The success of the recent missile defense test reminds us that something worthwhile, though extremely difficult, can usually be achieved (and hopefully, achieved in time). Space resource utilization is connected to both space-based defense and to human spaceflight. And in both cases, significant mass is needed in deep space, in much larger quantities than is practicable to launch solely from Earth’s surface. So, by dedicating our efforts to increase our capabilities in both of these areas, they will become both synergistic and mutually supporting.

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7 Responses to Unexpected Connections: The Strategic Defense Initiative and Space Resources

  1. Michael Wright says:

    It seems much was spent on SDI though it is interesting that first lunar mission since Apollo was a spinoff from SDI. Are there additional connections, some taken and some not?

    Regarding the Moon, I met Dennis Wingo at Maker Faire Bay Area (did a video interview). My first question was “Everyone loves to talk about Mars except you and Paul Spudis, why?” Dennis answered there are others besides Paul and him, and as with discussion with his friend Robert Zubrin that to sustainably colonize Mars we must industrialize the Moon.

    Wingo said here we are at Maker Faire with 3D printers and all this advanced technology we didn’t have 40 years ago and this makes going to the Moon much easier.

    “We live in the 21st century now, time to act like it!”

    • Vladislaw says:

      “We live in the 21st century now, time to act like it!”

      That is a great line, especially about space resource utilization. Will have to start quoting him.

    • jebowenag79 says:

      “Everyone loves to talk about Mars except you and . . . ”

      That strikes a funny note, though I’m not sure it was intended that way. It’s just that I too noticed the bandwagon of thought and emotion directed toward the red planet, some fanciful and some more thoughtful, but all well into the future. I even occasionally hopped on, enjoying those nice 3D models of habitats built into the hillsides, and greenhouses growing Mars lettuce.

      Through it all, though, I also kept reading Wingo & Spudis (and others, too), and after finding a critical mass of good analysis and solid engineering, I came around. Your quote “to sustainably colonize Mars we must industrialize the Moon” is spot on. I’d say it’s true not only in logistical terms, but that the industrial base of the Moon will pay for settling Mars in a sustainable way. This may be in terms of corporate revenues and a tax base, but also in that lunar propellants, sent to cislunar depots, will allow more food, robots, colonists and other mass to be sent to Mars.

  2. Joe says:

    Excellent article.

    I would add one possible player to the mix.

    Detailed study of the Earths environment with the intent to understand weather patterns. While I am an Anthropogenic Global Climate Change Skeptic (or denier as its adherents would have it), the natural short and longer term changes in the climate in regions of the Earth (as opposed to the Earths supposed single environment) have very important implications both humanitarian and military.

    During the period being discussed I participated in EVA studies for the SEI (on loan from what was then still called Space Station Freedom). There was another parallel project called Mission to Planet Earth. Even as SEI was being abandoned Mission to Planet Earth still enjoyed strong support among the very people who opposed SEI. That is it did until it was realized that the basic science requirements listed for Mission to Planet Earth would require orbital platforms large enough to need the same combinations of Heavy Lift Capability and Orbital Assembly (I was a “fly on the wall” for some of these discussions before returning to Space Station Freedom). When that became known support for Mission to Planet Earth eroded and it was de-scoped.

    If the capability (by means of lunar resources) to build platforms that could meet the original Mission to Planet Earth requirements were to become available, it would be interesting to note what the attitude of the environmental community would be.

  3. Vladislaw says:

    Great post Dr. Spudis.

    I want to thank you for the link to the “”Defense Applications of Near-Earth Resources”” report. I had never come across that before.

    You stated:
    “As for space resource utilization, much of the current skepticism stems from the notion that we can somehow lower launch costs to a point, where everything we need in space, can be cheaply launched from Earth. ”

    For me, I want launch costs lowered so it is easier and cheaper for a start up to access space resources. Where I find the skepticism is two fold.

    Group A: Every rock in the solar system is sacred and should not be touched by capitalism.
    Group B You should fix ever problem on planet earth before you worry about going to space.

    Thanks again for the post.

  4. billgamesh says:

    I consider failed Star Wars technology to be the key to expanding the human presence into the solar system. Dr. Strangelove conned the U.S. government into expending uncounted billions on directed energy weapon research and that classified data is waiting to be utilized. By re-purposing a weapon into a system capable of lifting truly immense payloads far beyond anything presently dreamed of with chemical rockets. Lifting whole cities.

    Teller’s X-ray laser directed most of the energy of a hydrogen bomb in one direction in a tight beam. This is coincidentally the working principle of Nuclear Pulse Propulsion which super-heats and accelerates a cloud of plasma derived from a slug onto a plate or sail surface. The Isp of such a system is measured in the tens of thousands. As Freeman Dyson noted in his work on Project Orion the problem with pulse propulsion is of course the fallout. Used anywhere within the magnetosphere of the Earth the radioactive byproducts will eventually contaminate the atmosphere. The Moon is just outside the magnetosphere.

  5. billgamesh says:

    “As for space resource utilization, much of the current skepticism stems from the notion that we can somehow lower launch costs to a point, where everything we need in space, can be cheaply launched from Earth.”

    From the moment ice on the Moon was revealed in 2010 everything should have changed. I lay blame squarely on a campaign contribution made by a certain “entrepreneur” with a hobby rocket. I am no naysayer and have always advocated a state sponsored Super Heavy Lift Vehicle and a lunar return. I do not apologize for my skepticism and being a NewSpace denier and for the last seven years been shunned, harassed, and ultimately banned from almost all forums discussing space because of this view. The legion of toxic groupies that have hijacked all public discourse about space are, as I state whenever I am allowed to, the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

    “The path to new and revolutionary capabilities is often littered with stumbling blocks and naysayers.”

    The real stumbling block has always been the military industrial complex. The most significant event in the space program was the Apollo 1 fire and was, in my view, the beginning of the end of the first and only space age. Aerospace concerns realized from that day forward Human Space Flight was going to be hard money while cold war toys were a fortune waiting to be made. Norm Augustine could explain how that works. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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