Where do we go from here?

by guest blogger Ken.

Howdy all! I hope everyone is hard at work in the new year, bringing space ever closer to Earth. Keep up the good work at Politico!

The last couple of weeks have certainly been eventful. Not just in the financial markets, where I’m getting a front row view of the action, but also in things space, where things also seem to be heating up. I’ve been piecing together the following for a few days, so please excuse any lapses in continuity.

Re: the financial markets, all I can really tell you is that all of the kabuki dance going on in D.C. and on Wall Street is not for your benefit, you little person of insignificant wealth, but rather to appease and placate the gods of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), whose corporate affect in the world is far, far greater than the mere corporeal existence of you or I. That was the Faustian bargain in granting companies “corp”-orate status – they have equal “status” with you in the courts, but they can exercise far more economic clout than the vast majority of individuals can (“classes” of individuals at least have a fighting chance) – they can afford far, far more lawyering than you or I. When companies have difficulty servicing their debt, that raises the odds of a default, which angers the gods of CDS, and they induce volatility in the market and require that more capital pay attention to them. By lowering rates, companies whose debt is little more than a promise can at least keep that promise for a little while longer. I saw an interesting chart recently that tracked the decline in LIBOR with the decline in Fed Funds, quite a parallel, given that LIBOR is supposed to be driven by petrodollars cached in Europe, and effectively decoupled from U.S. events. Everyone borrows variable rate based off LIBOR these days, then swaps into fixed rate. The risk there, as with CDS, is the ability of the counterparty to make good on their part of the deal. That’s what has everyone spooked. Well, that and the ability of companies to keep servicing their debts. The problem with making so much money so freely available is that it’s going to make it easier for folks who didn’t engorge the first time around to figure “What the heck? Am I going to be the only one left to clean up this mess? Forget that! Party time!”

Good ol’ Moral Hazard. Don’t get me started on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Of course, we’ve been pumping money into the economy pretty freely since about 1993. This is not a recent problem, but dates back to the early days of the Baby Boomers really taking the reins of control in this country. These problems date back to the cultural yuppie and fern bar days of the 1980s, with roots going even further back. There needs to be some fundamental shift in the way this nation conducts its affairs [though not to fundamentalism, good heavens no! Just a greater portrayal of, and admiration for, honesty and moral values]. And there’s only one group of folks in this country that have the demographic heft to make that happen. I’ll leave the rest of that logic puzzle to the reader.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a capitalist and firm believer in the benefits of trade, and a rather conservative one at that. An old country banker who’s a bit worldly wise, perhaps too much so. I started in finance in 1989 with an internship at Shearson Lehman Brothers (not in NYC) while at college. My undergrad degree’s in International Business & Economics. I started in banking in January 1993, in NYC in December of that year, and I’ve seen a lot since then. I worked the Wall Street Desk at BNP during the last four years of that decade. I am a globalist and dedicated to trade. Because free nations that trade freely with one another tend not to get into wars. That’s a good thing, as war is bad for business (unless you can make it happen elsewhere and are supplying the armaments). My analytical skills are a global commodity, and I’m one of those rare folks who can actually understand the entirety of most derivative trades, and since I am an American citizen by birth it is my birthright that I may pursue my career anywhere an the world I can do so. That’s an option that far more folks on this globe don’t have, which is a shame. Because that stifles the free interchange of cultures and ideas, thereby limiting the pool of ‘best practices’ that one can be exposed to and thereby adopt in one’s life.

Very little of which I’ve seen over the last several years. During the mortgage underwriting project I would often throw my hands up in the air and proclaim that we’re becoming Nigeria. I saw the current rot in a pool of mortgages dating back to 2000/01. The best part is the prepayment penalty, which IIRC was about three years in tenor. Many of the ARMs had a reset after two years. This provided an incentive to refinance before the rate ratcheted up , but golly that happened to lie within the prepayment period, whereby if more than 20% of the loan was paid off in any one year, then a penalty of X% of the mortgage went to the lender to offset the future flow of interest payments which they used to expect before everything was packed up and shipped off to the warehouse for repackaging as collateralized debt obligations. Most of those penalties were rolled into the refi-ed mortgage, so most folks didn’t get as much out of the cash-out refis as they thought they would, especially after all of the non-current and nearly non-current credit card and installment debt were rolled in as well. I saw it time and again. I also saw things like faked signatures, one app had 5 different SSNs in it, goofy appraisals, suspicious fax traffic, doctored paystubs and W-2s, defaults after <3 months, money laundering, the works. The game is that the financiers saw an endless stream of fee income from the prepayment penalties, which would be automatically triggered in most refis. Read the mortgage contract. I was amazed when it was pointed out to me that defaulting on a mortgage within the prepayment penalty period automatically triggers the fee, to be added to (actually given priority in payment streams) any amounts already due and owing under the default. Believe you me, when I do buy a house (and I am not in any hurry. I have no intention of overpaying for crap), I am going to go over those documents with a fine-toothed comb. I’m not terribly fond of the modern culture of contracts of “I win and here’s how you’re going to make it happen for me”, which is why, for example, I’ve been using a prepaid cell phone for years, pre-paid tolltag, I don’t do automatic bill pay of anything other than my month-to-month wireless access, and my car is paid off (with about a third of the extended warranty to go), and for my birthday this week I paid off the last bit of debt. I don’t owe anyone anything (except rent), and that’s a pretty sweet feeling. So I’m not terribly worried, but there sure are a lot of folks who should be, because they ain’t been livin’ right like proper Americans and all the rest of us are going to have to pay the price for it. So that’s work. Hopefully now you’ve got a better idea of why I don’t often talk about it. On the space side, there has been a lot of interesting commentary going around, from Dr. Weinberg’s and Dr. Griffin’s comments in the space astronomy field, to the Planetary Society and Dr. Griffin’s comments regarding Constellation and VSE, and even Jon’s comments on it being about the journey, not the destination (amen), as well as comments from the STA meeting. I think it’s great that space is getting more play in the press, even if it still has a ways to go quality-wise. An example is the Popular Mechanics article “Dissent Grows as Scientists Oppose NASA’s New Moon Mission”, which describes the circumstances of the announcement by the Planetary Society of a mid-February conference to discuss just how exactly it is that we’re going to get to Mars. Rather than via the Moon, which can act as a springboard to leverage commercial and peaceful military involvement and develop cislunar space, perhaps we should be visiting asteroids, because they’re really similar to Phobos and Deimos, the ‘moons’ of Mars. Of course, these are the same folks who think that the Lagrange points start at the Sun-Earth L-1 and L-2, rather than the much closer and easier to practice at Earth-Moon L-1, which isn’t even as far away as the Moon!

Dr.Friedman’s comments regarding the mentioning of ‘humans’ and ‘Mars’ together at NASA getting a slap is laughable given that mentioning ‘humans’ and ‘Moon’ together would have been grounds for dismissal (okay, figuratively). The Mars network got firmly established during the late-90s with Mars as THE and ONLY goal of consequence, and the Moon was last on pretty much everyone’s list of objectives – though there did remain a few die-hard Moonatics carrying the torch in the sad and lonely back offices of NASA.

Then again, it is a bit of hubris for Dr. Griffin to state that the debate about the VSE was had in 2003, 2004, and 2005, and it was fulsome. I seem to recall the debate tapering off quite sharply after the May 2005 address to Congress, when NASA’s mission was changed from designing a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) to designing a National Launch System. Of course that’s going to eat your lunch, budget-wise.

I noted that some folks had stopped by an old post here at Selenian Boondocks, entitled ‘We’re on a Road to Nowhere’ and dating to mid-December 2005. So I stopped by and re-read it for the first time in ages (and discovered that sometimes I scare myself). It also notes the decrease in public debate that accompanied Dr. Griffin’s ascension to Administratorship the end of 2004.

Dr. Friedman notes two basic criticisms of the Moon:
1) ‘the lack of public resonance that the lunar base has’, and
2) ‘a lunar base might not be practical’, indicating it would ‘require’ a lunar supply of water ice and is ‘too close’ to Earth for a practice Mars mission.

Weak. Really, really weak.
1) The lack of resonance is with NASA repeating an accomplishment of over 40 years ago slower, costlier and almost as good. There was no upswell of support in the space community for the NASA base at Shackleton crater because everone figured it was going to be around there anyway, and no one really believes that the Constellation throw-away-the-pieces architecture is a sustainable way to do a Moon base. And why is the incoming flight path over the ever-dark crater? [NB: Dr. Spudis tells me that’s a notional flight path {a stupid one if you ask me. K}, and the flight path can be high up and then straight down to the pad] It’s probably okay to do so -after- the crater has been thoroughly investigated, but it kind of seems counterintuitive to spew rocket exhaust into your field of examination. Plus, NASA’s choice also showed that it was not going to be commercial in any way (other than ‘We’ll buy your fastner for our spacecraft, but you can’t come along’). YOu need energy for operations to run a business, and for that you want to go to the high ground at the Lunar South Pole, the Leibnitz Plateau/Mont Malapert. You’re not going to get as much of the moderate ambient lighting/temperature effect as lower down at Shackleton, but you will have your solar arrays in the Sun most of the time on the high ground, and you can always hop down to lower terrain (selenain?) as the need arises, such as to investigate the ever-dark properties of parts of Shackleton. The high ground is also where you want to emplace any Solar Power Towers that will peek over the foreshortened Lunar horizon and get constant sunlight to power the LOX works, SWIEXtract (whoa, I’m claiming copyright on that one!), Lunar base functions, and so on. Power towers also could provide for emplacement of lightpipes, solar mirrors, and bulk power transmitters. You need energy to do anything; it’s a great business! So is building them.

2) Lunar bases could be supplied by asteroidal water, and that’s the beauty of an EML-1 station – it’s up out of the gravity wells of the Earth and Moon, making it a convenient staging point for asteroid expeditions, using Bigelow balloons and other components, as well as trips to and from the Moon, GEO, Sun-Mars L-1 (a great! staging point for all kinds of Mars and Phobos and Deimos missions), Ceres, and points beyond. The science community’s beloved James Webb Space Telescope, stationed at Sun-Earth L-2, could be brought in to EML-1 for servicing and sent back out to SEL-2 on a low-energy trajectory, meaning maximum science payload and minimum fuel.

I personally find Dr. Friedman’s last contention, that the Moon’s too close, to be plain silly. I’m not buying that one, nor am I buying any possible business case for Mars. The supply line is too long for anything but the most hyper-precious goods. Water doesn’t make sense, as that can come from asteroids and I’d much rather be mining them out of existence than poking around on Mars hoping to find a fossil. I’d much rather do that on a comet in hopes of finding evidence of pre-Solar life. Now that would be cool.

All of which is academic, if we can’t lick the transport problem. My bet’s on an EELV-derived architecture, though I’m not wedded to the concept. I do regret that more wasn’t done with the industry studies conducted under O’Keefe, as there were a lot of really good ideas that came out of them. I’m not entirely sold on the Direct architecture, but I think I’m just biased against anything shuttle-derived because I’m so disappointed in all of the external tanks we’ve thrown away instead of putting to good use on orbit. I still don’t see ESAS as sustainable over the near or long term, as there is zero commercial application for it, I can’t really see a military application for it (but I don’t ponder such things), and it’s a sledgehammer solution for an instruction that asked for the use of a hammer. At least the initial instruction, the VSE Really, go read it.

The intial outline merely states:

“C. Space Transportation Capabilities Supporting Exploration
-Develop a new crew exploration vehicle to provide crew transportation for missions beyond low Earth orbit
-Separate to the maximum practical extent crew from cargo transportation to the ISS and for launching exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit”

Looking to the relevant section of the document, ‘Exploration Building Blocks’ we see that:

“NASA will initiate Project Constellation to develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle for future crew transport. This vehicle will be developed in stages, with the first automated test flight in 2008 [snicker], more advanced test flights soon thereafter, and a fully operational capability no later than 2014. The design of the CEV will be driven by the needs of future human exploration missions described in this document…NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities except where critical NASA needs – such as heavy lift – are not met by commercial or military systems… [emphasis added] Such a vehicle could be derived from elements of the Space Shuttle, existing commercial launch vehicles, or new designs….NASA plans to invest in a number of new approaches to exploration, such as robotic networks, modular systems, pre-positioned propellants, advanced power and propulsion, and in-space assembly, that could enable these kinds of vehicles…”

Seriously, anyone who actually sits down and reads the Vision for Space Exploration will be amazed at how great a strategy framework it is. It would be nice if reporters would take the time to read the document before commenting on it or its intent.

We were given a great opportunity. The folks who crafted the VSE did a great job and I like it, even if it does have Mars in it. 😉

Which leaves me with little doubt that something’s a little stinky with this whole ESAS thing. Not that I’m a paranoid conspiracy freak, I’ve just looked at the details and that’s what I’ve read from the available data, which I’ll admit is insufficient to draw any conclusions. Which is why there still is doubt.

Part of that thinking comes from how far NASA has drifted from the spirit of VSE in focusing in on designing the NEW US Transportation system. That label comes from the Lunar Architecture Team presentation in December 2006 (slide 3). Even though the VSE says NASA does not plan to develop new launch vehicle capabilities. By making transportation of humans to space a “critical NASA need”, you get to sidestep that little roadbock. By not doing anything about that little end run, Congress and the White House are implicitly endorsing the little change in plans, from focusing on exploration beyond LEO to building the US Transportation system.

Which is odd, given that Americans in general don’t think of NASA as a launch vehicle agency. The numbers were in the study NASA commissioned in Feb/Mar of, IIRC, 2007 to help lay the groundwork for an update in NASA’s communication strategy, at which Keith Cowing over at NASAWatch took a few swipes, and I did a couple of posts on it (NASA’s New Plan for Talking At Us, Pts I & II). As I noted there, only about 14% of folks that took part in the various sessions saw it as NASA’s job to launch things into space. The VSE said you can look at heavy lift, but otherwise look to the private sector or the military for your launch needs for the CEV. If NASA has wandered astray, it’s because those with the authority to make that not happen have not exercised their authority, or have desired the current state of affairs.

My personal feelings are also that NASA should not be in the launch vehicle business. I don’t think it’s the right job for NASA, and their best bet is to buy American for the ride to orbit. Beyond Low Earth Orbit is NASA’s job for the moment. First back to the Moon, not only to answer a lot of questions that the planetary scientists have, but (hopefully) also to establish a permanent means of travelling in the space between the Earth and Moon as a result. (Which is why I still think my Caplet architecture is the best bet, and modularity in design is called for in the VSE) An EML-1 station is a pretty good intermediate step that can be reached quickly, and really shouldn’t be considered any less ridiculous than a Sun-Earth L-2 station that this workgroup is going to look at. I still don’t see why the fact that the JWST is going to be at SEL-2 makes it a smart decision to put our next space station there.

The argument is driven mainly by the fact that SEL-2 is in fact the lowest delta-V launch point in near-Earth space to points beyond, without question. Mars, the Asteroid Belt, the Moons of Jupiter (now that’s going to be a great adventure!), and beyond to the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, maybe even skimming inflatable Murphy Bags through the atmospheres of Nepture and Uranus for their treasures. You want He3 in abundance? That’s where you need to look.

But it’s not all about trans-Terran space. We Absolutely Must begin looking Solward for objects because I for one am sick and tired of the crazy hype that surrounds every blindsider that passes near us (such 2007 TU24 or whatever) as it pops out beyond Earth’s orbit for a bit. The problem is that looking in towards the Sun is a bit…problematic for most terrestrial scopes. The atmosphere washes out any resolution you might hope to achieve. Radar’s different, but let’s not go there right now. Beyond the atmosphere you still have to deal with all the stuff we’re cluttering up space with out to GEO and the graveyard orbits.

The solution is to go a bit further out to EML-1, the top of the gravitational hill between the Earth and our Moon. Instruments will get sunward view a fair amount of the time, and on a regular basis. I’m not up to the math of calculating the view solutions, I’m just trying to picture a cone from EML-1 to the rim of the Moon, and to what extent the 5.1 degree inclination of the Moon’s orbit to the plane of the ecliptic allows visibility Solward during the New Moon. (No, I’m not going to give you the distance to EML-1, you have to look it up, and remember that while the average distance to the Moon is 384,404km, that can vary between 356,410km and 406,697km between perigee and apogee, and the distance will vary proportionally)

So a really good dry run mission for a future CEV is to go put a set of instruments in a halo orbit around EML-1. The next CEV test can upgrade the suite of instruments. You’re looking out for big rocks from space, and you’re putting your new CEV through its paces. Eventually you throw some fuel tanks into a loop around EML-1 and the next CEV that passes through is going to the Moon. And thanks to the ability to top off the tanks at the top of the energy hill, they’ve been able to squeeze in a great new mobile rock lab. Personally I’d name mine Selenological Survey for Exploration and Xploitation of the Moon for mining, or SSEX Mm, but don’t let the kids see that one. Maybe Selenological Investigation for New kNowledge, or SINN. The use of the domain extension .sin has proposed for servers set up on the Moon to relay-mails. It probably helps to know that the Sumerians had a great temple in Ur dedicated to the Moon god Nanna, or Suen…later contracted to Sin, still the name for the Moon today among Syrians and Kurds (from ‘The Moon: Myth and Image’). Though my copy of The Moon Book says that Peruvian Indians and Ethiopians use Sin, while the Kurds use meh or hiv.

So the first NASA folks aren’t just dropping off a Moon lab (and maybe returning it to L-1 as well for a sortie to a different location), but they’re helping to put in place an architecture that others can use. L-1 can be a staging point to not only the Moon, but also GEO, L-4 & L-5, the asteroids, Mars, and beyond. Besides which, JWST could be brought back to EML-1 from SEL-1 on a low energy trajectory along the warp between SEL-2 and EML-1, which is the on-ramp to the InterPlanetary Superhighways (IPS), serviced by the guys at EML-1, and then sent back out on station at SEL-2 all shiny and pretty.

The marginal delta-V advantage of SEL-2 for launches does not offset the fact that it is a lousy place from which to launch missions to the Moon and GEO and HEO and MEO and LEO. These are places where we have billions of dollars worth of valuable assets. That makes them rich in economic opportunity. Too many in the space community don’t think like business folks. Every time some academic or scientist goes in the media and says that going to the Moon is going to cost something like hundreds of billions of dollars, it’s because they can only imagine such things occuring within the framework of what NASA can provide (and naturally would be competing with their projects…). Thankfully that’s changing, but there’s still an awful lot of blowhards out there unchallenged in their decrying of things about which they know little. Which is the fault of everyone, as we really haven’t been paying much attention to the Moon over the last nearly forty years, and haven’t needed much of a human knowledge base to carry on the NASA mission. That’s about two generations, which means that we’re woefully deficient in people, especially young people, who are really knowledgeable about the Moon.

So while all of that Sturm und Drang is going on I’m just quietly puttering away on the Lunar Library. I’ve got a few non-fiction reviews up over at the Out of the Cradle homepage, as well as the Bicentilune, which links to reviews of over 200 stories of adventure on our Moon. I’m anxiously awaiting a few new things, like the anime Freedom 3, the manga Earthlight 3, and a new old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book: “Moonquest”. Supposedly that last one was published on January 1st, and I popped down to the local B&N to grab a copy on the 2nd, which I had to prepay for before they would even move it from the warehouse to the store. Still waiting…

I’m probably going to head down to the Lunar and Planetary Conference in Houston in March. I’m especially curious about the outreach and education session on Sunday, as well as the Previews of Upcoming Publications exhibit. Maybe I can talk my way into a few review copies for the Lunar Library. I did submit an abstract to give a ten minute overview of the Lunar Library, with five minutes for questions while the next guy sets up, but after the ISU experience I’m not holding my breath.

I also just got a mailer about an upcoming Lunar science conference, the Lunar Science Conference. July 22-24 at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Cali. According to the e-flyer, “The conference will review the state of knowledge of, and opportunities for, science:

-Of the Moon…
-On the Moon…
-From the Moon…

No doubt the recent NRC report on the Scientific Context for the Exploration of the Moon will be required reading. If not it should be as it is a good report that’s worth a read through, and is structured along the three elements noted above. I think I talked about it back in the day.

This week is a somber one, and like Rand I share a birthday in this darkest part of the year for the U.S. Space Program. We should honor those brave Americans who took one of the most dangerous jobs around, flying in machines built of the cheapest materials by the lowest bidder. Actually, that’s a bit unfair since the performance requirements of the space flight field are such that many of the materials developed (or capitalized) for use in the space field have found broad application elsewhere. Nevertheless, astronaut is one of the more dangerous jobs around, and these men and women face that danger with courage. It has been said that exploring new frontiers is another name for finding new and gruesome ways to die. This fact will not change with a thousand new launch vehicles and five 9s of performance reliability, and there are many particularly gruesome ways to die in space.

The question is not “should people run the risk of dying to go out into space?”, but rather “how many people will have to die to advance civilization into the next frontier?” Whether we should penetrate into that frontier can only be answered in the affirmative; it is what human civilization has always done, and will always do. As to how many shall die, the question is unanswerable, as we’re still evolving our civilizations here on Earth and untold millions die in misery while we do so. People die every day building the highways, bridges and tunnels of our American civilization. Examples abound.

Four hundred years ago, these men and women would have been out in the vast wilderness of North America, charting the best path for those to follow. Many would have been killed and/or eaten by bears or cougars or wolverines, someting horrific to those of the old continent [Yes, I am writing from a Eurocentric Classical Western Civ perspective]. Yet we did not stop our advance. We learned and accelerated. This can be no less for our next frontier. The space frontier. A place of wealth and abundance yet awaiting the application of the human spirit.

Let’s get cislunar space licked so we can start sending out the professionals along well known paths. There’s good reason to service GEO assets, and there’s good reason to put solar power satellite assets in GEO. There’s good reason to return to the Moon and much industry possible there. We can deploy a Solar system wide network of scientific probes along the IPS and bring them home for servicing & refueling. No more disposable billion dollar spacecraft pitched into the void to work for a short time before being lost to the aether. Orbital instruments that are looking Solward for asteroids and out-of-the-ecliptic for comets, not Starward for planets around other stars. Fuel depots, service stations, freeflyers, comm centers, electrical utilities, metals foundries, broadcast platforms, PV factories, robot garages. (all of which the tourists would be delighted to see, I’m sure)

From these will develop tomorrow’s technologies, the products of which we’ll be more than happy to sell to everyone. This is why I am interested in the Moon. There is business to be done in cislunar space if we can get over the transport hurdle. Business that can make this nation stronger in the face of the challenge of this century – energy supply that doesn’t foul the biosphere. We can expand our economic sphere of influence from GEO out to EML1 and the Moon. Doing so will provide a platform for not only going further, but also providing a support role for Earth, the two most oft quoted being PV cells and structural elements for space-base Solar power in GEO (or on the Moon {or both}) and Helium-3, which has fusion and medical applications.

If we start at SEL-1 we forego all of that to go to…Mars. To look for water/life. I’m hoping that someone from the Mars side is going to start talking about the potential medical benefits of understanding alien DNA, because I really don’t see a whole lot of export possibilities that are worth the six month supply line back to cislunar space. I’ve heard Deuterium mentioned, but I’m thinking we’re not really hurting for deuterium back here on Earth. Maybe we could use Martian resources to build massive Solar arrays at SML4 and SML5 and beam the power back to Earth? (I shudder when I think of the focusing units on those puppies) Or ship the elements back to GEO?

I’m just not seeing it, and so with all due respect to the learned gentlemen and gentlewomen who will meet in February to discuss an SEL1 approach for the push to Mars, I would contend that they are pursuing the wrong goals.

It is not all about Mars. Mars is only one destination amongst many, and not even necessarily the best (moons of Jupiter gets that one in my book) or most important. Everyone knows where I stand on that last one.

[feeling a little uppity ’cause it’s my birthday this week. I pay my taxes, I got a right to state my mind. And Jon lets me post my thoughts from time to time]

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One Response to Where do we go from here?

  1. Monte Davis says:

    I would often throw my hands up in the air and proclaim that we’re becoming Nigeria

    In the 1970s and 1980s, some Western diplomats described the USSR snidely as “Upper Volta with rockets.”

    It all comes around… 🙁

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