Monte Davis on ISS and Microgravity Science

[Note: As a bit of a preface to this repost from a usenet group, I wanted to give a bit of background. I first got interested in the whole commercial space thing when I was 16, mostly through a usenet group I had stumbled on called sci.space.policy. Unfortunately, as time went on, the group’s signal to noise ratio got worse and worse. Things were still survivable when I got back from my mission in 2002, but have slid rapidly since then, with most of the old regulars having moved on. I haven’t given up 100% on usenet, but due to the awful S/N ratio, I’ll typically just google to see if certain specific individuals have posted anything interesting lately. With Henry Spencer gone, I’m down to just a handful of people on there whose posts I look for (Monte Davis, Jorge Frank, and Derek Lyons). Every once in a while, I’ll stumble across a gem that reminds me why I haven’t completely turned my back on usenet, such as this one from Monte Davis a few days ago]

There’s been a lot of discussion, particularly at Space Cynics about ISS, its suitability for microgravity science, and the utility of microgravity research and development in general. Today, most people who have been following the program agree that the ISS has been a bit of a debacle, and most agree that the way ISS is run and the existing space transportation situation pretty much preclude any real commercially useful microgravity research from happening. However, Monte makes some useful points about the situation that while I’ve made similar points in the past, bear reemphasis. Here are Monte’s comments (with my emphasis):

(Derek Lyons) wrote:
>Which, in my book, makes the person who thinks that’s a condemnation
>of the Shuttle… an idiot. Because that was the goal of the Shuttle
>from Day One, to work with a space station.

The seemingly neat circularity emerged after the fact. With cheaper
and more frequent access, the station could have been built soon and
cheap enough, equipped and staffed adequately, to actually *do* the
kinds of research originally promised.

But with the successive delays and downscoping, that has never been
possible. Unfortunately, that has discredited the whole premise and we
get the “all we do is go around in circles in LEO” mindset, and a
vague sense that “they tried all that free-fall science and nothing
panned out” — when in fact, all but a few token bits of science have
been squeezed out by the demands of just getting it “complete” before
the oldest parts reached the end of safe service life.

(NB: I’m not claiming the most hyped promises — the giant protein
crystals, perfect ball bearings, breakthroughs in undersatnding
free-fall physiology etc — would have paid off; I’m saying there’s
never been a chance of finding out with the very limited equipment and
even more limited time available for them).

It’s as if I’d tried to build a house on a mountaintop using a
Lamborghini to carry materials and workmen. Surprisingly, the house
ends up a lot more expensive, less spacious and well-equipped than I’d
hoped… and I conclude “well, that proves a house on a moiuntaintop
is a dumb idea.”

While as Monte says, the fact that we haven’t even really had a chance to try doesn’t prove that microgravity research will ever produce real benefits, it does mean that there is a chance if things are done differently that we might get better results. There are plenty of challenges out there facing large-scale microgravity research and manufacturing, particularly due to the snail’s pace of progress when compared to terrestrial approaches that try to eliminate the need for microgravity. But I think one of the hopeful things that could come from the latest wave of commercial space endeavors is an environment much better suited towards real research and development. Between suborbital microgravity services (from existing players like Up Aerospace, and hopefuls like XCOR, Armadillo, us at Masten, etc) in the nearer term to commercial stations and free-flyers like what Bigelow is trying to do, things are starting to move in a direction where the rapid iterations that good science needs can become possible.

That doesn’t mean it will work, but it does mean that this time we’ll actually get to find out one way or the other.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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21 Responses to Monte Davis on ISS and Microgravity Science

  1. googaw says:

    there is a chance if things are done differently that we might get better results

    One can say this about almost any kind of endevour in almost any unpromising area. Hardly a ringing endorsement, this.

    … the latest wave of commercial space endeavors is an environment much better suited towards real research and development. Between suborbital microgravity services (from existing players like Up Aerospace, and hopefuls like XCOR, Armadillo, us at Masten, etc)…

    It is a huge stretch to call this “commercial.” The vast majority of microgravity science has been and is government-funded, and the vast majority of that is funded by NASA and ESA.

    If you pursue the same goals that NASA has been pursuing, NASA will end up being your main customer, and the same bureaucratic incentives and problems that occurred with Shuttle and ISS will likely occur again. By pursuing the same goals as NASA you will end up using the same means, i.e. becoming a NASA contractor.

    Here we have a science that has been extremely overhyped in the political lobbying to fund ISS, a science in which private industry has invested almost nothing beyond what it attained or hoped to attain in NASA contracts. If there were commercial gains to be made from microgravity, NASA would have made big political gains by discovering them. Instead this vaunted agency of the spin-off has produced practically zip in this area, as have Russia and ESA who have also conducted many hundreds of microgravity experiments.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t get the whole focus on microgravity.

    The deep space environment has some other properties that can not be easily reproduced on earth, like for example large high-quality vacuum, abundant solar energy and easy temperature control.

    Just one example: there is a very promising approach to nuclear fusion called dipole confinement: http://alcpc1.psfc.mit.edu/ldx/

    On earth you have to first levitate the dipole, and then you need a very large vacuum chamber. You also need to actively cool the dipole to temperatures where superconductors work.

    In deep space you could build a self-contained dipole from high temperature superconductors and cool it down to operating temperature using a simple sunshade. And most importantly you get as much high-quality vacuum as you need for free.

    There are also various potential industrial processes that are impractical on earth because they require high-quality vacuum, the reactants are too toxic or they require large amounts of thermal energy. None of this would be a problem in deep space.

  3. Anonymous says:

    You need to actively cool the dipole in a levitated dipole reactor anyway, since it will be receiving a large amount of energy from the plasma. The plan is to pump heat out to the cooler side of the dipole by active refrigeration, then radiate it.

    Levitating the dipole is not that big a deal, since it has a large magnetic moment anyway; the external field required to counter 1 g is not large.

    What you lose in space (aside from the presence of cheap labor and a huge industrial infrastructure) is the ability to easily remove waste heat from the entire powerplant. On Earth, you can transfer it to water or air; the entire Earth then acts as a radiator to space.

    We can make extremely high vacuum on Earth, and processes that require high vacuum can often be replaced by ones that do not. Example: the ludicrous proposal to grow GaAs wafers using something like the Wake Shield facility. The fusion example you gave will, of course, not have an extremely high vacuum — it will be filled with plasma (and, at the outer wall, neutral gas from plasma/wall interactions).

  4. Anonymous says:

    The dipole needs to be actively cooled in a commercial reactor. But for an experimental facility that is used only for a few minutes per day you would not need active cooling.

    Some of the reactor designs based on levitated dipoles require 100m diameter vacuum chambers. Of course once it is proven that this is a viable way to produce fusion power it is possible to build a 100m diameter vacuum chamber on earth. But for an experimental facility it might actually be cheaper to build it in space!

    Fusion experiments do not work in high vacuum, but they are _very_ sensitive to contamination of the plasma by heavier elements. A major problem is that when the plasma touches the wall it releases trace amounts of heavy elements that “poison” the plasma and prevent it from reaching the required temperatures because the bremsstrahlung.

    If you do not have a wall you should be able to avoid this problem as well.

  5. googaw says:

    anonymous: The deep space environment

    The crucial part of this is deep space. These features (high-quality vacuum, constant solar energy, easy temperature control) don’t exist or work much less well in LEO than they do in deep space, beyond the shadow of the earth and the contamination of earth’s atmosphere. None of these features could have been credibly used to sell the NASA idea that all our eggs should be put in one basket in LEO. Thus the answer to anonymous’ query is straightforward:

    I don’t get the whole focus on microgravity.

    The emphasis on microgravity stems from NASA’s need over the last two decades to sell a big space station that could be reached by the Shuttle. It has everything to do with political lobbying and nothing to do with commercial promise.

    High quality vacuum and high solar energy are great examples of the many opportunities in space that lie in pursuing goals very different than those NASA has pursued.

  6. googaw says:

    anonymous: Of course once it is proven that this is a viable way to produce fusion power it is possible to build a 100m diameter vacuum chamber on earth. But for an experimental facility it might actually be cheaper to build it in space!

    This is one feature of microgravity that is important — the ability to deploy very large structures that wouldn’t hold up in earth gravity.

  7. Anonymous says:

    googaw: You are right. The ISS is more an upper atmosphere research station than a space station. Many of the lessons learned from ISS will not be applicable for real space stations. It really is a collosal waste of money.

    The sad thing is that a station in earth/moon L1 would probably even be cheaper:

    No need for batteries.
    No solar array rotary joints. Vastly simplified thermal management.
    Much less severe space debris environment.
    No atomic oxygen problems.
    No gravity gradient messing up your zero gravity.
    No reboosts.
    Much lower attitude control requirements.

    All these advantages IMHO more than make up for the fact that you can only get about half the mass up there. Sure, radiation is a problem. But realistically speaking, given a storm shelter for solar storms, the risk from launch and landing is much larger than the risk of getting cancer from the radiation.

  8. googaw says:

    anonymous, I wholeheartedly agree, with a caveat: we should think of having multiple platforms and depots in a variety of orbits, not a single station.

    There are a number of basic flaws in the Von Braun paradigm that NASA manned spaceflight has followed. The worst of these are (1) there is a fixed plan, a set of “next logical steps”, which we should all follow rather than an ability to respond to opportunities as we discover them, and (2) space activities should be centralized around a core space station.

    Real commerce has gone a very different direction: constellations. Commerce and the other utilitarian space activity, defense, use a wide variety of orbits because different orbits are useful for different things, and usually use multiple platforms per orbit because for most applications wide coverage is important.

    The most useful commercial orbit was, is, and will remain for a very long time good old Clarke Orbit, a.k.a. geosynchronous earth orbit. If there is any place where it would make sense to put a space station, it would be GEO. It could service the large number of mostly commercial satellites already in that orbit, and would have the raw materials of large numbers of abandoned satellites available to salvage. Other useful orbits include the polar orbits used for surveillance and mapping. LEO at 28 degrees is very far down on the list of useful orbits. Its only real utility is political, as a place where NASA launching from Florida can show off the most for the least amount of effort.

    I’m afraid that the earth/moon L-points are also not very commercially useful at our stage of history. Once we start doing ISRU that will probably change, but that’s still in the unforeseeable future. Not to knock the name of this blog, but lunar dreams are yet another set of goals we inherit from NASA politics rather than from commercial needs.

    Boring but very useful and lucrative commercial activities in useful orbits do not help lobbysists drum up more funding for NASA, so you won’t see space societies or the Dennis Wingos of the world running around promoting them. Political hype rather than economic reality has dominated the public discourse on space, and too many alt.spacers have mistaken this political hype for the economic reality.

  9. Anonymous says:

    To respond to the defense of the idea of putting a levitated dipole reactor in space:

    (1) If the goal is an experimental reactor operating for a few minutes, then precooling the coil (as is done in the current LDX experiment) will work perfectly fine on Earth. Cooling provides no advantage for doing the experiment in space.

    (2) If it is cheaper to put a coil in space than to build the vacuum chamber needed for a commercial reactor, then fusion reactors will not be economical on Earth. So, experiments in space will be useless for reactors supplying power to Earth, unless you are going to also include power beaming. Good luck on that.

    (3) You cannot escape the need for a first wall for a commercial reactor, even in space, since you need to capture bremsstrahlung and/or neutrons from the plasma (neutrons for DT plasmas, photons for more advanced fuels.) Also, if using the 3He-catalyzed DD cycle you need to efficiently capture gas that has convected out of the plasma, since you need to separate and store the tritium produced by DD side reactions. This likely requires a gas-tight vessel to surround the plasma.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Re: dipole reactor in space

    (1) You are correct. Precooling the dipole is not a big deal on earth.

    (2) Building a vacuum chamber of the size required for a dipole reactor might cost one billion dollars. That is not too expensive for a commercial reactor. But for an experiment it is much too expensive (especially since the ITER eats up all the fusion research money).

    Putting a 4t superconducting dipole on a falcon 9 and launching it into space will be much cheaper.

    (3) I am not talking about a commercial reactor here but about an experiment where you can just let the reactants escape and replenish them with on-board supplies. A tiny supply of liquid deuterium should be enough for years of experiment operation.

    If you want to study plasma in a dipole, the space environment is perfect. The levitation field on earth introduces additional time-dependent distortions to your dipole field that might lead to instabilities that you would not see in a pure dipole field. And the wall adds another level of complications. Only in the space environment can you study the behavior of plasma in a pure, undisturbed dipole field. After you completely understand a fusion plasma in a pure dipole field, you can try to make it work with the additional complications of a levitation field and a first wall.

    The more I think about it the more I like my idea 🙂

    A superconducting dipole in deep space could be used to study some very interesting phenomena:

    – Dipole confinement fusion
    – Magnetic shielding against charged particles
    – Solar wind sailing (mini magnetospheric plasma propulsion)

    You would have to charge it on earth and launch it fully charged. There would have to be a free-flying observation platform/sun shield some distance away from the dipole. It could be frozen into the magnetic field of the main dipole using a small superconductor. It would also be responsible for attitude control.

  11. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    I’ve been thinking a bit about how to reply to your comments here, because while I actually agree with a lot of your points, I think you’re taking them way too far in some cases.

    I think you have a good point that as I would put it, there’s nothing magic about commercial space that allows it to do things NASAs way but somehow get much better results. You may get some smaller efficiency gains due to lower management overhead, and the different incentives structures of a commercial enterprise compared to NASA. But the real jump in efficiency only comes by doing things in a different way (and often for different reasons).

    However, I think you take this idea too far, and seem to think that if NASA thought it was a good idea, and hyped it, it must have not been a good idea in the first place. Personally, I find this argument to be logically lacking. Just because NASA coopted an idea for its own purpose, and then botched the execution badly does not prove that the original idea had no merit, or that if you pursue that idea in a more intelligent manner (bound by different constraints and incentives), that only NASA is going to be your customer. There are some areas where I agree fully with you that you are right. For instance, I think it’s going to be a long, long time before there are any commercial customers for Mars missions of any sorts. The same applies to much of the science missions NASA does. Some of them might, in the absence of NASA, be able to get a much smaller amount of money from various private endowments, but for the most part they don’t make any sense from a private perspective.

    I don’t think however, that most of the examples you’ve been bringing up in these comment threads apply however. Microgravity research (suborbital and orbital), manned spaceflight, LEO stations and propellant depots, specifically. Most of these ideas were not ones that NASA came up with, they’re ones NASA coopted for their own reasons.

    To say that there hasn’t been commercial interest in microgravity research for instance is fallacious, because there has been interest in the past–companies willing to put up large sums of their own money for internal research purposes. Most of it dried up when they realized how broken NASA’s setup was for doing the research. NASA couldn’t provide the kind of frequent, reliable access to space that was necessary for real microgravity research. Honestly, neither the Russians or Europeans have been able to either.

    Has microgravity research been overhyped? Sure. Has NASA latched on to microgravity and tried to use it to sell the jobs programs they really wanted to run? Definitely. Has the ISS been far worse than useless for microgravity research? Yes. Does that mean that a commercial microgravity project that addresses the key flaws of NASA’s approach couldn’t build up a commercial customer base and eventually produce a lot of value? I don’t think so.

    While you do have some valid points, I think you’re taking them too far, and in many cases throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    ~Jon

  12. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    anonymous, I wholeheartedly agree, with a caveat: we should think of having multiple platforms and depots in a variety of orbits, not a single station.

    There are a number of basic flaws in the Von Braun paradigm that NASA manned spaceflight has followed. The worst of these are (1) there is a fixed plan, a set of “next logical steps”, which we should all follow rather than an ability to respond to opportunities as we discover them, and (2) space activities should be centralized around a core space station.

    I actually agree with all of these points quite a bit. There is just too much demand in too many different orbits to service all with one station. Not to mention t hat putting all your eggs in one basket is just about always a dumb idea.

    I disagree though about there not being much utility for a low-inclination LEO station. Even setting aside our difference of opinion about the feasibility or potential profitability of microgravity research, development, and eventually manufacturing. A depot station (or preferably several) in a low inclination low earth orbit (and I’m using the term relatively loosely–I mean anything between say the ISS’s inclination and the inclination you can get from a due east launch from Cape Canaveral) could actually be very useful as stopping-off point for travel to further destinations. Say it turns out you want a station in GEO for servicing GEO comsats. By having a station at LEO on the other side, it makes it much easier and cheaper to get stuff to that GEO station in the first place.

    Just a thought.

    ~Jon

  13. googaw says:

    John Goff: But the real jump in efficiency only comes by doing things in a different way (and often for different reasons).

    No, the biggest jump in efficiency comes from doing different things, things that NASA has not pursued because they were only economically and not politically viable. Space is vast, and the realm of possible space projects is even vaster. In this realm, the intersection between the politically viable, in terms of its ability to garner tax funding, and the commercially viable is very small, and probably not far from the empty set.

    [you] seem to think that if NASA thought it was a good idea, and hyped it, it must have not been a good idea in the first place.

    NASA hype doesn’t by itself prove that the idea is wrong, but the traditional dominance of political lobbying in the space fan community should make one highly skeptical about the received wisdom about what are good and bad goals for space commerce. To pursue a goal because it is of great interest to space fans might sell a few t-shirts, but it is a highly flawed approach to space commerce. This approach will put you in a small (or nonexistant, outside of NASA or similar contracts) market overcrowded with competitors, all pursuing hype and buzz that is only useful for political lobbying.

    The received wisdom among space fans is the accumulation of decades of pro-NASA lobbying — of trying to figure out the most politically exciting ways to fund aerospace jobs out of tax money. These goals are extremely different than the goals that unfettered and unsubsidized commerce would pursue, and indeed the intersection between the two may be close to the empty set.

    Many myths have been propagated by political lobbyists that certain areas are commercially viable. These myths are relentlessly propagated because they can be used to lobby for NASA projects like ISS or a return to the moon. Many other areas that really do have commercial promise have been neglected. An approach to alt.space that just tries to recreate this NASA Channel excitement out of private funds is going to founder on the reality that NASA has never chosen projects for their economic viability. Indeed, projects like ISS cost thousands of times their direct economic return. The Space Shuttle cost over a hundred times the revenue it generated. The idea that the private sector can mimick NASA goals but bring costs down by a factor of ten, much less the factor of a thousand needed to make a space station commercially viable or the factor of 100 to make an RLV commercially viable, is absurd. The big win comes from changing goals.

    Just because NASA coopted an idea for its own purpose

    These ideas often originated in a political lobbying effort, for example Von Braun’s extensive efforts in the 1950s (the Collier’s articles, etc.) to drum up interest is space shuttles, space stations, and Mars missions — an entirely political religion still pursued by most space fans and by NASA, because it has proved to be a politically viable source of tax funding. Sometimes these ideas originated in science fiction, as mere entertainment, and have long since been warped by NASA and aerospace lobbyists into propaganda. On uncommon occasions good ideas originated from utilitarian motives (e.g. Eisenhower’s spy satellites) and became an important part of utilitarian endeavors (in this case NSA and NRO), or
    they went from the pages of science fiction (Clarke’s geosynchronous space station as radio relay) to commerce (AT&T’s Telstar and the subsequent comsat industry) without being killed off by NASA interference. Neither Von Braun, nor the subsequent promoters of Von Braun’s ideas, nor NASA itself have ever originated a good space commerce idea. Commercial reality has never been necessary in their quest to get their hands on more tax money.

  14. googaw says:

    John Goff: A depot station (or preferably several) in a low inclination low earth orbit (and I’m using the term relatively loosely–

    Far too loosely. There’s a huge energy penalty from launching spacecraft bound for geosynchronous orbit from highly inclined orbits like 28 degrees rather than from the equator. Thus real geosynchronous commerce lauches from the equator (Guiana, Sea Launch, etc.)

    By having a station at LEO on the other side, it makes it much easier and cheaper to get stuff to that GEO station in the first place.

    On top of the vast and entirely unecessary extra costs of launching into a highly inclined orbit like 28 degrees and then rocketing away large amounts of propellant to get to 0 degrees, there’s also a big energy penalty from prematurely circularizing your orbit. The natural place to put a propellant depot is where rockets headed to GEO already launch directly to and stage, i.e. at geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO).

    It’s entirely consistent with political lobbying, but not at all consistent with commercial behavior, to demand that one’s customers pay these energy penalties so that one can put one’s depot in the politically convenient 28 degree low earth orbit. Such a strategy might win NASA contracts, but it won’t win any real commercial customers.

    My point is unassailable: 28 degree low earth orbit is useful only for NASA to do the most showing off with the least amount of effort while patriotically launching from one of the United States. Only companies angling for NASA contracts would seriously consider using that orbit. Commercially, it is worse than useless: it adds large and completely unecessary energy penalties to the commercial customers’ operations. If somebody’s space project is going to 28 degrees that fact alone proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they are angling for NASA contracts or partnerships rather than pursuing real space commerce.

  15. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    My point is unassailable: 28 degree low earth orbit is useful only for NASA to do the most showing off with the least amount of effort while patriotically launching from one of the United States. Only companies angling for NASA contracts would seriously consider using that orbit.

    Have you really thought this out? Where do you think most of the propellant for a propellant depot is going to come from? Which launchers and countries can take advantage of said depot? What benefit would the depot be providing?

    A GTO depot in an equatorial orbit would be the one that’s almost worse than useless. Right now only two launchers would be able to use it or service it: Zenit Sea Launch and Ariane V. Both of them can already launch the biggest of commercial satellites to GEO without a propellant depot. So, the depot doesn’t really allow them to increase their product offering. Also, they can’t access propellants any cheaper than themselves, so it can’t reduce their cost either.

    Sure, low to moderate inclination orbits (you’re the only person I’ve ever known to call 28 degrees a high inclination orbit) do cost a bit of delta-V for the plane change (which would typically be done at apogee in order to minimize the cost). But if they either a) allow you to access other customers, or b) allow you access to cheaper supply, it might very well be worth it. I’ve written a few blog posts in the past about stations in the 40-51.6 degree inclination range using resonant orbits, and what they mean about launch opportunities from various current and future launch sites throughout the world. The basic upshot is that the entities that would most benefit from (and thus are most likely to buy from) a propellant depot are all located at moderate to high inclinations, and most of the cheaper sources of propellant require higher inclinations as well. Especially if RLVs ever come into the mix–hint for legal reasons a lot of them are going to be launching out of the CONUS.

    This has nothing to do with trying to be patriotic, or trying to accomplish NASA’s goals, or putting political over economic concerns. This has everything to do with looking at supply and demand and finding where you have the most competitive advantage. You’d be well suited to drop that canard and stick with your strong points.

    ~Jon

  16. googaw says:

    John Goff: But if they either a) allow you to access other customers, or b) allow you access to cheaper supply,

    By “customers”, the fine folks at NASA contractors Lockheed-Martin and Boeing who came up with these depot studies really mean NASA, its contractors, and its partners, and “cheaper supply” really means launch from NASA-controlled Cape Canaveral, which has never been the home of cheap launchers. You have not named a single significant entity that desires to use 28 degrees low earth orbit that is not dependent on the extremely high subsidies of NASA investments or contracts. You think you are criticizing NASA, but you are really promoting the NASA Channel view of space commerce, i.e. that space commerce is a product of NASA and must be tied to NASA’s apron strings. You are hopelessly confusing political hype with economic reality, and highly subsidized “commerce” used to justify NASA projects with real commerce. 28 degrees is a clue blazing across the night sky that we are not talking about real commerce.

    A GTO depot in an equatorial orbit…Right now only two launchers would be able to use it or service it: Zenit Sea Launch and Ariane V. Both of them can already launch the biggest of commercial satellites to GEO without a propellant depot.

    There are so many mistakes here it’s hard to know where to begin. First, those two launchers between them account for most commercial communications satellite launches. This is by far the biggest area of independent space commerce. Brushing them off is what a political lobbyist would do, because a political lobbyist is trying to win tax money not customers. Brushing off the biggest commercial market is the last thing a real depot entrepreneur would do.

    Second, you have again been hoodwinked by your NASA contractor friends if you think depots will provide substantially cheaper propellant. Quite the opposite: the greater tankage factor, R&D amortization, ullage, operational complexity, and other overhead ensures that depot propellant launched from earth will be at least somewhat more expensive than dedicated propellant. If the depot project is tied to NASA’s apron strings, it will be substantially more expensive than dedicated propellant, per NASA’s history with the Shuttle, ISS, etc. The main benefit of a depot and refueling is not direct cost reduction, it is the provision of real options: to allow successful satellites to extend their lifetimes, and to rescue satellites from upper stage malfunctions, to give two examples.

    Boeing and Lock-Mart might be able to pull the wool over the eyes of Congress and taxpayers with this fantasy of lower propellant costs, just as they pulled the wool over our eyes with promises about how the Shuttle would greatly lower costs and the ISS would spur a commercial boom, but they wouldn’t make any profit selling high cost propellant at the promised low price. The only way to make money on such a fraudulent promise is with big fat NASA contracts. Another huge clue, as if we needed another one, that they are angling for NASA contracts rather than puruing real commerce.

    To do get customers to use your depot service and benefit from the real options it could provide, you have go where said spacecraft are when the real options are needed. To do these things and not be clinging to NASA’s costly apron strings, you need to go where the real customers are. Most of the real customers do their staging in GTO, and none of them do it at 28 degrees. If somebody is trying to sell you a depot at 28 degrees, they have no real interest in commerce and are just another of thousands in the U.S. aerospace industry gunning for NASA contracts. I’m not blaming them, that is the traditional way they have gotten money for their space projects. But to succeed in this business one must learn that 90%+ of the ideas floating around the NASA contractor community are talked about because of their political rather than their economic promise. In a business dominated by political lobbying, it is crucial to learn the difference between political lobbying and real commerce.

  17. googaw says:

    John Goff: the basic upshot is that the entities that would most benefit from (and thus are most likely to buy from) a propellant depot are all located at moderate to high inclinations,

    If you change this to “very high inclinations” I actually agree with it. Even bigger depot prospects than comsats in GEO (or en route in GTO), although not independent commercial customers, are the DoD/NRO/NSA spy satellites, which are mostly in polar orbits. It is next to impossible to plan a propellant budget for these things, since there are so many operational contingencies. Military and intelligence agency surveillance operations more than any others need the real options that refueling would provide. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there was a secret project on this as we speak (no, I don’t have actual knowledge of such a project. We all know about Orbital Express, of course: I’m surmising that its success may have been a green light to go ahead with a next generation refuelable spysat. You heard it here first).

  18. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    By “customers”, the fine folks at NASA contractors Lockheed-Martin and Boeing who came up with these depot studies really mean NASA, its contractors, and its partners,

    While that may have been *their* focus, it isn’t mine. A NASA-centric depot architecture isn’t going to go anywhere, because NASA isn’t going to fund it. So I’ve been focusing my independent research and analysis on finding commercially viable ways to field a propellant depot. I do happen to be in contact with some of the key propellant depot players at Boeing and LM, but we happen to disagree strongly at times on how to go about things.

    And at least one of the main potential customers I’m thinking of a depot isn’t even American. They just don’t happen to be from a country located on the equator, so you need a non-equatorial depot to service them (and other US and international customers).

    and “cheaper supply” really means launch from NASA-controlled Cape Canaveral, which has never been the home of cheap launchers.

    Actually, by cheaper supply I did not mean US launchers from Cape Canaveral. I meant foreign launchers, many of the cheapest of which do not have equatorial launch sites.

    You have not named a single significant entity that desires to use 28 degrees low earth orbit that is not dependent on the extremely high subsidies of NASA investments or contracts.

    28 degrees is a red herring you came up with. I never mentioned that number, and in fact have several times mentioned inclinations between a due east Canaveral launch (23.8 degrees btw, not 28) and ISS inclination (51.6). Right now, the two inclinations I’m most interested in are ~40 degrees and 51.6. And all of this revolves around making sure I can access the cheapest international launchers, and can supply propellant to those customers most likely to need it.

    That said, I don’t think that depots for GEO (and lunar and earth escape) missions and customers will be the first application of a depot. I could be wrong, but there are certain obstacles that need to be overcome before GEO comsat operators are likely to a) be willing to use a new technology, and b) adapt their operations to said new technology. I could be wrong, but how things develop from here will be market driven.

    You think you are criticizing NASA, but you are really promoting the NASA Channel view of space commerce, i.e. that space commerce is a product of NASA and must be tied to NASA’s apron strings. You are hopelessly confusing political hype with economic reality, and highly subsidized “commerce” used to justify NASA projects with real commerce. 28 degrees is a clue blazing across the night sky that we are not talking about real commerce.

    And ironically enough, that 28 degree number came from you not me. You’re arguing against a strawman that I never put forth.

    ~Jon

  19. googaw says:

    Jon: While that may have been *their* focus, it isn’t mine. A NASA-centric depot architecture isn’t going to go anywhere, because NASA isn’t going to fund it.

    Jon, it is refreshing to see your independent thinking in this area that has been so dominated by politics. Let’s keep going with this train of thought. The main technical work that has been done in this area has been done by people angling for NASA contracts. It is based on extremely non-commercial assumptions that lead to very different engineering choices than a primarily commercial endeavour would. The basic engineering choices in these studies, from the choice of propellants, to the choice of orbit, to assumptions about revenue to pay for the whole thing, are based on an assumption that the main customer is a large sovereign, controlling its own launchers which waste propellant for nationalist reasons. This kind of engineering assumes that said sovereign will heavily subsidize R&D for the depot, including multi-billion dollar bells and whistles like advanced cryogenics and large assembled structures. Even if you can overcome ITAR such that this main customer is a Russian space agency rather than NASA (and the very same nationalism that prevents NASA and Russia from the launching from the equator suggests you won’t), you’re still left being primarily a government contractor, subject to similar bureaucratic pressures that gave us white elephants like Shuttle and ISS. If you don’t want to be subject to these pressures, most of your sales, both in the near term and in the long term, need to be to independent commercial customers. If you choose instead to by highly subsidized, whether by a foreign government or the U.S., you will have to pay the huge price that comes along with that, and design something that is basically useless for independent commercial customers. The preferences of large sovereign versus independent commercial customers, and as a result the design choices to satisfy those preferences, are light-years apart.

    I meant foreign launchers, many of the cheapest of which do not have equatorial launch sites.

    It’s hard to say how cheap they might actually be, because we don’t really know what the costs of nationally subsidized launchers are. By the time we add in plane changes, not to mention premature circularizations, requiring subsequent un-circularizations and re-circularizations in the economically naive depot schemes, even at the possibly quite subsidized prices nationalist launchers are not the cheapests launchers to the most important commercial orbit. Sealauch/Zenit is.

    The bottom line is that most alt.spacers, despite being critical of NASA, are seriously underestimating the extent to which government contracting, and especially NASA contracting, has distorted space engineering. Not only has NASA severely distorted the grand strategu, imposing the preposterously uneconomical Von Braun plan of Shuttle, station, moon base, and Mars mission, these political ideas and the practices of lobbying and contracting have severely distorted the basic engineering choices, especially those made by the NASA contractors that have done the moon base, Mars mission, depot, and similar studies in socialist futurism. It makes no sense to try to pursue these government plans as if they were commercial goals. They bear no resemblance to commercial goals. Of course, those angling for NASA contract will try to sell taxpayers on the ideas that these grand designs are really “infrastructure” that will magically give rise to a new kind of commerce done on their plan, just as the Shuttle and ISS were supposed to do. But real commerce is doing and will be doing very different things than those we see on the NASA Channel.

  20. googaw says:

    I wrote: those angling for NASA contract will try to sell taxpayers on the ideas that these grand designs are really “infrastructure” that will magically give rise to a new kind of commerce done on their plan, just as the Shuttle and ISS were supposed to do.

    I want to riff on this a bit, because the idea of justifying socialist futurism as “infrastructure” for a supposed (but currently non-existant) future commercial market may be good politics for winning NASA contracts, but it is extremely bad economics.

    Those making this argument cite dams, airports, railroads and so on as examples. But in no case did a government come up with these ideas, nor design or build the early examples of them. Private utilities made dams for electricity long before the TVA got government into the business. Railroads too were invented entirely by the private sector and the first tens of thousands of miles of track were built entirely by the private sector. Similar for airplanes and the first airports, although the military value of air power got government involved in it sooner than most other areas.

    Now modern governments with their vast R&D budgets do on occassion originate some ideas that eventually become commercially useful infrastructure, but even in those cases the commercial uses are almost completely different than the goal of the government R&D. For example the Internet is a case of fortuitous borrowing of something designed for specific military needs that existed at the time: it is not at all a case of government foresight about the future nature of commerce, or of the future proceeding along the lines of any preconceived plan. Quite the opposite.

    Designing commercially useful infrastructure in the first place, and building the first useful examples of it, requires private companies serving the needs of independent private customers. It may or may not make sense to nationalize certain “public good” parts of an industry after it becomes mature, but governments pretending to foresight about the future nature of commerce don’t come up with useful infrastructure in the first place — private companies seeking independent private customers do. On occasion government agencies pursuing their own current utilitarian golas come up with something that commerce can later fortuitously borrow and convert into commercially useful infrastructure. The Shuttle and ISS are good examples of what happens when government rather than the private sector tries to figure out what the future of commerce will look like and then builds “infrastructure” to suit that fancy.

  21. Jon Goff says:

    Googaw,
    Sorry I haven’t gotten back with you on some of your comments yet. I’ve been busy.

    If you change this to “very high inclinations” I actually agree with it. Even bigger depot prospects than comsats in GEO (or en route in GTO), although not independent commercial customers, are the DoD/NRO/NSA spy satellites, which are mostly in polar orbits. It is next to impossible to plan a propellant budget for these things, since there are so many operational contingencies. Military and intelligence agency surveillance operations more than any others need the real options that refueling would provide. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there was a secret project on this as we speak (no, I don’t have actual knowledge of such a project. We all know about Orbital Express, of course: I’m surmising that its success may have been a green light to go ahead with a next generation refuelable spysat. You heard it here first).

    It’s interesting you’d bring up propellant depots for polar satellites. It’s an interesting market, and though there are some specific challenges that need to be dealt with in servicing it, that’s actually been where most of my thought has been lately. I don’t think there’s as much potential demand mass-wise as a depot for GTO or beyond-GEO outbound trips, but there are other benefits, particularly with the DoD being more willing to try out new capabilities than NASA is.

    ~Jon

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