Well Said

I was going to write another article about the administration’s new NASA plan, but while catching up on email and articles from while I was in Oregon, I see that “Rusty” Schweickart already said what I wanted to. And he put it better than I would’ve (emphasis mine):

Our current situation is akin to being on a dead end road. Instead of being on a path toward the goal we all seek, i.e. to regain our leadership position in human space exploration, we must recognize that we are (and have been) on a path to nowhere. We are confronted with arguments to ignore the clear signs of this sad situation and even encouraged to accelerate along this futile path.

The alternative to this is support for the President’s proposed plan. It recognizes and eliminates the waste of precious resources in the current program and heads us in a productive direction toward our desired destination. In other words, when you recognize you are on a dead end road, stop, turn around, and head in a direction more useful to your goal.

Are we, in fact, on a dead end road? In answering this critical question you should not overvalue either my opinion or the opinions of my fellow astronauts, but rather focus on the considered and thoughtful, and even hard-nosed, analysis of the panel of experts who dealt explicitly with this, the Augustine Committee on our Human Spaceflight Program.

Is this risky? Of course it’s risky. All space activity is risky. But wisely accepting and managing this risk will ultimately lead to a new and exciting US business capability which will be the envy of the world. The alternative is for NASA to continue to divert its precious human and economic capital to a challenging but very well understood transportation service rather than toward pioneering new and more advanced technology.

While admittedly I still am still more personally interested in the Moon than in NEOs and Mars, Rusty made some good arguments. In particular, I really appreciated Rusty’s comments about risk. Anyone who thinks CxP wasn’t risky has their head in the sand. Congressional supporters wouldn’t be needing to slip spending restrictions into emergency military funding bills that have nothing to do with NASA if CxP were a low-risk, well-performing program. The reality is that there are always risks, including the risk that we’ll overspend on what is at best a mediocre program like CxP where success is defined as spending over $100B and 20 years to have what is at best still a joke of a lunar exploration program. Since we really have to take risks any way you slice it, I’d rather make sure we were taking the risks that would actually allow us to start becoming a spacefaring society.

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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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20 Responses to Well Said

  1. After Apollo, Nixon and a Democratic Congress decided that NASA no longer needed manned missions beyond LEO. And this continued to be the policy for for more than 20 years until President Bush and Congress decided to endorse the development of a return to the Moon architecture which they argued might also eventually allow NASA to send humans to Mars . Unfortunately, Griffin and Bush chose the most expensive architecture possible in order to achieve this goal.

    Instead of choosing a cheaper architecture to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface, President Obama has decided that we no longer need to return to the Moon! Yeah, who needs lunar oxygen or hydrogen from a tiny gravity well that’s just a few days away! Yeah, who needs to establish a permanent presence on a place that would be Mecca for space tourism!

    He’s also decided that NASA no longer needs to operate manned vehicles to access LEO. The President has decided to outsource America’s access to orbit to Russia until private industry has the capability to transport humans safely to orbit. He has also promised to fund the development of a heavy lift vehicle by 2015– almost at the end of his second term (if he gets a second term).

    The President has also speculated about a possible mission to an asteroid 15 years from now and a possible mission to Mars orbit 25 years from now using possible ‘game changing’ technologies. Whether or not future administrations 15 to 25 years from now would endorse such goals is just pure speculation.

    So the Obama vision is to spend $300 billion in tax payer money over the next 25 years for one mission to an asteroid (not to mine the asteroid) and one mission to Mars orbit (not to land on Mars or to mine the moons of Mars) while continuing the ISS program with no permanent Moon bases, no permanent Mars bases, and no artificial gravity space stations: $300 billion spent just for a couple of space spectaculars!

    Sorry, but Congress will never accept this silly, expensive, and politically unsustainable plan!

  2. Marcel, what’s the weather like on your planet? I have to assume it is pretty bad, otherwise why would you bother coming to visit ours?

  3. Heinrich Monroe says:

    “So the Obama vision is to spend $300 billion in tax payer money over the next 25 years for one mission to an asteroid (not to mine the asteroid) and one mission to Mars orbit (not to land on Mars or to mine the moons of Mars) while continuing the ISS program with no permanent Moon bases, no permanent Mars bases, and no artificial gravity space stations: $300 billion spent just for a couple of space spectaculars!

    Sorry, but Congress will never accept this silly, expensive, and politically unsustainable plan!”

    Yeah, just like they didn’t accept the Apollo program. That was expensive and politically unsustainable. I’m reluctant to say that it was silly, though.

    Let’s be clear about the potential for mining propellants on the Moon. You don’t dig up hydrazine. You did up water (if you’re lucky, and you can move enough regolith), and THEN you need lots of energy to dissociate that water. Lots and lots of energy. Without nukes, it’ll take a long time to produce significant amounts of propellant there. While the gravity well on the Earth is a lot deeper, we have oodles of water, and lots of energy (including from nukes) here. The commonly unstated caveat about lunar propellant ISRU is the “once we’re there, with bulldozers and nukes” part.

  4. @Trent Waddington

    Reporters once asked Harry Truman on the campaign trail why he kept giving the Republicans hell. And Truman responded, “I just tell the truth, and they think its hell!”

    We need to develop a strong private commercial manned spaceflight industry in this country. But we also need to maintain our Federal manned spaceflight capability which has been a positive force on America’s economy and in advancing our technological know how. Private industry benefits from a strong Federal space program and I believe that NASA will benefit from the emerging private manned space programs.

  5. @Heinrich Monroe

    Before you colonize the Moon, you need to find out if you can even get to the Moon. So the Apollo program did just that. Some folks at NASA wanted to established a lunar base right after the end of the Apollo program. But Nixon didn’t want to. In fact, the Nixon administration originally wanted to cancel the last two manned missions to the Moon and Skylab. I believe it was Casper Weinberger who strongly petitioned against that plan.

    Humans have been melting rocks on Earth for thousands of years. In fact, I guess you could argue that human civilization is primarily based on melting rocks.

    Since lunar regolith is about 40% oxygen on average, I don’t think its going to be too difficult to melt rocks on the Moon in the 2020s and 2030s in order to extract oxygen (about 86% of your rocket fuel requirements) from the lunar regolith or hydrogen from polar ice.

    Will this require nuclear power? For oxygen extraction, probably not. For water and hydrogen extraction, probably yes. Although you could also beam solar powered lasers into permanently shadowed craters to power photovoltaic cells within the crater interior for water and hydrogen extraction facilities.

  6. A_M_Swallow says:

    If the rocks are ice based the sun and laser beams will melt the water allowing extraction of the rocks.

  7. I’d rather make sure we were taking the risks that would actually allow us to start becoming a spacefaring society.

    Been arguing this point over at Simberg’s, and I make the same point here. The Constellation folks, damn their system, would say the same thing. Architecture aside, I ask this.

    What possible path is there to becoming a spacefaring society that doesn’t require a permanent presence on the Moon as a first step? Are we to spend the next ten years discovering whether moving material up and down an 8 km/s hill–with nothing at the top–will pay off commercially? Or will we commit to developing the resources of the Moon so that industry in the space between has an actual reason to exist?

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Presley,
    I actually agree that having permanent facilities on other planets (the Moon, NEOs, Phobos/Deimos, eventually Mars and Venus, and beyond) are going to be important parts of becoming a spacefairing society. However, just putting facilities on the Moon does not automatically make us spacefairing, especially if we can’t affordably and frequently access said base. Even with ISRU, you absolutely need propellant depots, and on the earth-to-orbit side RLVs in order to really make much headway. You can get a lot of material locally, but it’s also going to require a huge amount of hardware to be sent to the Moon until you reach a realistic breakeven point. Right now, with the earth-to-orbit, and interorbital transportation capabilities we have, the resources of the Moon are firmly subeconomic (ie it would cost more to access them than they’d be worth). If they weren’t subeconomic, it would be a lot easier to close a business case around extracting them. Getting a transportation system further along that is affordable, reliable, robust, and continually improving is a key to making the Moon accessible enough to truly enable lunar development and eventual settlement. The problem is that CxP wouldn’t have done hardly anything to make the Moon any more affordable to access than it was without CxP. As a government run program, commercial users wouldn’t be able to use the CxP elements, and more importantly, they’d be way too expensive and infrequent to be commercially useful. I’d rather just develop a transportation network that commercial space can plug into from day one, rather than blowing $100B on a bloated government-run system that is going to be obsolete before it’s even completed.

    ~Jon

  9. Heinrich Monroe says:

    “If the rocks are ice based the sun and laser beams will melt the water allowing extraction of the rocks”

    We’re not talking about water for drinking, we’re talking about water to make propellants. You don’t burn water. You burn the dissociated hydrogen and oxygen. Once you extract the water, that dissociation takes LOTS of energy. But, no question, we won’t get thirsty while we’re waiting for our propellants to get made!

  10. Jon,
    I don’t the Moon out of any special love for our choices in destinations, but because no one’s identified a viable alternative starting point for birthing the vibrant, space-faring economy that I think we’re both talking about. And if we’d like to achieve this in our lifetimes, I’m no so convinced we do so while avoiding a less optimal (even severely less so) path than waiting for one to emerge organically from Earth’s surface to LEO to the beyond.

    The way I see it, space will remain inaccessible to all but the wealthiest amongst us for the rest of our lifetimes. That’s for two reasons:
    1. There’s no conceivable industry in the Earth-LEO system alone that requires a great deal of space-based labor.
    2. Business today or in the near future can’t conceivably hedge the risk of prospecting and exploiting the nearest and easiest to access source of material off world–the Moon.

    We’re essentially where our ancestors two centuries ago were, looking across the Mississippi and trying to figure out how to get through that wide open territory and make a living.

    NASA has a role here, similar to that of of the surveying agencies, post offices and American cavalry from the 18th and 19th centuries, or the Transportation Department today. Government can assume the initial risks of developing the Moon for future industry, of incentivizing business to stand up shop there, laying down pads, nuking the craters, building the mass drivers–expressways if you will–and subsidizing round trips until such time as the private sector finally kicks in.

  11. Once you extract the water, that dissociation takes LOTS of energy.

    With 1300 W per square meter of sunlight and no need to go through endless rounds of environmental impact reviews, and once you amortize the initial capital investment, the continuing cost of energy should be pretty negligible.

  12. Heinrich, really? Water splitting is perhaps the easiest problem in this wacko-mole scheme.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_splitting#Solar-thermal

    The question always comes back to: why do you need humans for that? If you have a highly articulate robot like R2 and teleoperation, can’t you get a propellant production plant going without a single boot on the ground? If not, why not? Automated reusable landers fueled from the production plant can deliver the propellant to orbit. Automated tugs can take the propellant to depots: in lunar orbit, Lagrangian points, and LEO.

    I know we’re used to thinking of tanker trucks delivering fuel to gas stations with big burly blokes named Bob at the wheel but this isn’t Collier’s magazine anymore.

  13. Trent,
    While I think we can eventually get lunar ISRU and reusable landers that don’t need many people on-site for maintenance/repair, I think that to actually get there from here you’ll need people on the ground. Trying to make complex chemical engineering projects work right out of the box the first time in any sort of sustainable manner is naive, IMO. I think that even if most of the work on the moon is automated, that there will still be plenty of demand for people there on-site doing stuff that’s really expensive to automate.

    The thing is that if the Moon stays too expensive to access for people to make sense, you’re probably not going to be able to close a business case for an unmanned system either (other than data purchasing).

    ~Jon

  14. Jon, I know your “belief”.

    An automated propellant production demonstration plant on the Moon is orders of magnitude cheaper than any human mission. Even if you build a plant that fails, and you can’t fix it with teleoperation, it’ll still be cheaper to fly another, and another, and another unmanned mission than it will be to fly a single human there to fix it.

    Now, I imagine if you were the Space Czar you could fly humans to the Moon for cheap enough that a human-tended propellant plant makes sense, but I thought we were talking about NASA here.

    Simply, I think you have the cart before the horse here because I think you think there’s some other way to reduce the cost to get humans to the Moon*. I’m saying that the only way, using chemical rockets, is with in-space infrastructure fueled with ISRU and that has to come before the human missions.

    * If that’s not the case, sorry for misstating your position, and what do you actually think? Just that initial human missions have to be expensive due to the lack of ISRU and that cost will be amortized later?

  15. A_M_Swallow says:

    @Heinrich Monroe
    Before we can split the water we have to extract the rocks containing the ice from the sides of the craters. After the rocks have been taken to the refinery the ice can be melted. Only Then the water splitting start.

  16. Heinrich Monroe says:

    “Water splitting is perhaps the easiest problem in this wacko-mole scheme.”

    That’s easy? Yes, I guess it’s as easy as getting a few square kilometers of solar collectors on the lunar surface. Just about anything is “easy” if you have enough energy to do it. As to environmental impact on the Earth, large solar collectors are an environmental impact issue precisely because if you want to do electrical energy generation for transmission, you’d really like to put them close to the grid, which is, not coincidentally, where all the people are who are concerned with the local environment.

    So why not build a large solar farm on Earth, ideally where there is some water, good weather, and not many people, and make huge, HUGE, quantities of propellant there? I bet it’s a lot cheaper than doing it on the Moon. That propellant would actually be usable for leaving the Earth, unlike such fuel mined on the Moon, and probably would be a lot more economical for getting to space, even in view of the larger gravity.

  17. Heinrich, on Earth we have this thing called an “atmosphere” and its a lot easier to make these propellants from processing the air than it is from water. Not to mention much higher ambient temperatures than PSRs of the Moon. Anyway, it’s clear you have no idea what you’re talking about, so run along.

  18. Heinrich Monroe says:

    Trent, you’re going to have a hard time getting hydrogen propellant out of at least the atmosphere of the Earth. The idea of using lunar water for propellant is to get BOTH hydrogen and oxygen. But you make an excellent point. We have no need to use our precious water here on the Earth to refine out oxygen as a propellant. What a concept!

    You can tell me I have no idea what I’m talking about, or you can make some arguments that pertain to the issue at hand, which is whether lunar water really offers us a propellant advantage in exploring the solar system. The latter would offer more value to readers here. Your comment above does not pertain to that issue.

  19. Dude, liquid hydrogen is also made from the atmosphere here on Earth.

    The reason why lunar resources – any lunar resources – are of value is because they are at the bottom of a 4km/s gravity well, not a 10km/s one like here on Earth.

  20. Rufus Flyer says:

    Liquid hydrogen is made from the atmosphere here on Earth? Do tell.

    Actually, it’s made either by electrolysis of water, or from reforming natural gas (heating the stuff over a nickel catalyst). When you said hydrogen came from the atmosphere, I was tempted to ask what planet you are living on. Just another great reason to colonize Jupiter.

    Please close the door on your way out.

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