While some of you may have known for a while, I think that Clark may have surprised a lot of readers when he pointed out the news that I was no longer a part of the Masten team. I am proud to have been one of the founding members of their team, and I still think that their vision and approach for suborbital RLV development is an excellent one.  But I started realizing earlier this year that my interests and vision had diverged enough from theirs that I really needed to start-off on my own.  So, back in early July, I left Masten to start my own company, Altius Space Machines.

Before I leave the topic, and for what it’s worth, I recently got to spend two weeks training my replacement there at Masten, Alex Hreiz, and have to say that I think the Masten 3.0 team has a lot of potential.  I am also really excited about the CRuSR award they won, and hope they and Armadillo can both do the industry proud in executing on those contracts.

For those who are curious, I’ll give some more details in the future about what I’m trying to accomplish with Altius Space Machines. But right now I’ve been incredibly busy trying to put together proposals for and carry out some initial contract work, pull together my core team, get all of the boring details of starting a company taken care of properly, and work out all the details of setting up shop in another state. Add on top of that all the family challenges associated with the passing of Tiffany’s mother due to cancer last month, the marriage of her youngest brother yesterday, and packing up a house for the eventual move out to Colorado, and you get an idea of why blogging has and will continue to be light.

While all of this has been extremely exhausting, the last several months have also been very personally fulfilling. I’m really excited about the coming months, both for Altius and Masten. Altius has a long way to go, and a lot of hard work ahead of us, but I’m really excited for our vision, and by the challenge of making that vision a reality.

I’ll keep you guys posted as I get the opportunity.

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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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88 Responses to Transitions

  1. I have no idea why you’ve said “self-sufficiency” a bunch of times.. I didn’t mention it at all.

  2. Josh Cryer says:

    a vast and unprecedented task that we have hardly even started to contemplate.

    ASSM proposed it, $100 billion in 1980s dollars.The Auxon paper mentioned in this conversation proposed a similar idea with an estimate to those ends. But fyi my original statement doesn’t depend on self-replication in the slightest. Could be useful, but not necessary.

  3. googaw says:

    Jon, I’m not saying it’s permanent, I’m just saying it’s an extremely hard problem. Millions of genius*hours with tens of billions of dollars have been spent since the 1960s trying to lower launch costs, without any such substantial lowering. This includes scads of private entrepreneurs as well as several NASA gigaprojects and dozens of countries making their own rockets: an incredible variety of efforts with incredibly minuscule results in terms of actual launch cost reductions. Given that record, people who base their plans on dramatically lower launch costs are just playing a game of economic fantasy: entertaining sci-fi dressed up as a supposed non-fiction.

    Actually _working on_, rather than merely _counting on_ or preaching, ways to lower such launch costs is another kettle of fish. I certainly applaud people bending metal, bringing to life ideas for launch cost reductions, whether dramatic or humble, in a way that doesn’t demand billions of taxpayer money on a single gamble of a project when so many such projects have failed before. For example, by improving RLV technology for the suborbital market which may be spun-off to orbital farther in the future. I’m all for real work on lowering launch costs. I’m quite against economic fantasy that simply hand-waves or preaches or plans or hopes longingly that dramatic reductions are just around the corner.

    Trent, self-replication is a popular economic fantasy among space enthusiasts because given the transport costs, self-sufficiency to the extent it is possible is a highly desirable goal. For example, your goal, even if you didn’t state it in such terms, of being more self-sufficient by making solar cells in space rather than making them on and having to launch them from earth. The goal in the abstract to be more self-sufficient is quite laudable. The idea that it’s anything close to easy, or that economically illiterate sci-fi ideas about self-replicating machines are helpful, is not. My problem is not with self-sufficiency, to the extent it can be achieved, as a goal — it’s an extremely desirable goal, right up there with lower launch costs. My problem is with self-replication and similar hand-waving about how easy it’s supposed to be to make this or that high-tech component in space when in fact it’s usually astronomically difficult, as simple exercises of the kind I have described amply demonstrate.

  4. Pete says:

    On a slight tangent, this from a recent New Scientist article on space junk:

    “Dunstan estimates that of the 6000 tonnes of material in Earth orbit, one-sixth is high-grade aluminium in the form of discarded upper rocket stages. These empty fuel tanks have an internal volume 20 times that of the International Space Station. If they could only be corralled, they would make an inexpensive space station”

    First recycling space junk would I think be an obvious starting point for developing insitu resource utilization.

  5. Pete says:

    Googaw, I agree that launch costs have not been coming down but it does not necessarily follow that they should not. As you well know there have been a great many attempts to develop “747” equivalent launch vehicles over the past few decades and the few attempts at developing more appropriate “Wright Fliers” have generally failed, often for funding reasons. You will also be aware that the fundamental fuel cost of getting to LEO is about $10/kg and most mature transport systems cost 3-5 times the fuel cost.

    With each passing year New Space and the necessary technology is increasingly coming of age. A $100m spent now on each of ten “Wright Fliers” would I suspect result in a couple of successful low cost launch vehicles. I would have said ~$500m each ten years ago with much longer and riskier development programs (much less chance of success). The price is coming down fast and the odds of success are dramatically increasing.

    With each passing year such a development gets cheaper and easier, at some point the entry barrier will be low enough that a number of groups will jump on it – and a few will succeed. That point is I think almost within reach. A large part of the change has I think been in the capacity to develop vehicles at increasingly smaller scale – a bit like how the PC became possible compared to the mainframe. A tipping point is I think approaching.

    Personally, the approach I would probably favor would be a large electric hexakopter ( or like that lifted the rocket to 10-15km, above the bulk of the atmosphere. Such an electric helicopter might only cost around twice an electric car of comparable payload – they are cheap. Doing this allows a very fast turnaround and cheap development and testing cycle and the use of very small rocket vehicles (not aero losses scale constrained). I would probably also use the same electric helicopter system for landing upper stages, perhaps using the same batteries to also power electric turbo pumps. While slightly heavier the all electric system would be much cheaper/easier/faster to develop and it would be much more robust – the performance is still good enough. With such a general approach $10m-$20m might almost be enough to develop a RLV capable of launching *a lot* of micro satellites (if I had $10-20m I would probably give it a go).

    The above mentioned approach is just one possible approach, the real point I am trying to make here is that the game has completely changed. The launch vehicle approaches necessary even ten years ago are now completely outdated and silly. There are now much cheaper ways of doing things – and not taking advantage of that to enable very low cost small team development programs would be financial suicide. It is now possible to make all your mistakes at much lower cost – and it would be silly not to.

  6. Karl Hallowell says:

    There are several comments I’d like to make on the pile of discussions here. First, I side with Trent on self-replicating machines. Current terrestrial devices and infrastructure are not a good indication of what a space-based system would look like. Resources like labor and established infrastructure were widely relied on. Meanwhile efficient self-replication almost never has been a priority of modern manufacture. So the complex machines that require lots of human maintenance and resources aren’t at all similar to what would be needed in a low mass, resource limited environment like the Moon (since I’m particularly interested in lunar ISRU, I’ll focus on that for the rest of my article).

    For example, Paul’s “thousand steps” between machine shop and chip fab, ignores several critical things. First, that it has been done before. Second, that we don’t need the ability to build state of the art ICs. Even a chip fab that makes ICs of the scale of 60s level technology (up to a few hundred transistors on a chip) would be valuable in reducing the need for mass from elsewhere.

    Third, that there’s considerable synergy between chip manufacture and solar cell manufacture. On Earth, the silicon wafer came first with solar cell manufacturers feeding off of the considerable refuse for decades. But there’s no reason for it to work in the same order on the Moon.

    My take is that solar cell manufacture will be an early ISRU target (though after propellant manufacture and using regolith to build or protect structures). When that gets rolling, you’ll suddenly have a lot of relatively cheap silicon wafers of relatively high purity, a necessary precondition for IC manufacture and a critical one from the point of view of energy consumption in the process.

    Another comment from Paul:

    C’mon guys. Chips? Solar panels/thermal? The amount of equipment necessary to smelt metal means it is not going to be a first or second generation export, let alone high-end electronics. Fuel and concrete (for local lunar use) is going to be hard enough. Hell, food is easier, stoner kids set up hydro in their wardrobes, and yet the ISS doesn’t even have a basic greenhouse module.

    The thresholds are far lower for metal smelted from iron meteorites. The metal is often so pure (though usually as an iron/nickel alloy) that one doesn’t need to smelt it in the first place. Also, some of these problems are far easier than the issue of getting there in the first place. It’s something like complaining that sure, you can unicycle from Los Angeles to New York City, but how are you going to find a hotel room when you get there?

    Finally, on a comment by Pete:

    First recycling space junk would I think be an obvious starting point for developing insitu resource utilization.

    The first problem of recycling space junk is to move it into an orbit you can use. Space junk doesn’t have its own maneuvering capability. It takes a lot of delta v to move things around. Also I’m sure a salvager could find something useful on a rocket stage (plumbing, valves, valuable materials, etc) but it’s not clear to me that the tank itself will be useful. Seems to me that the effort to make a tank viable for holding stuff could have instead gone into putting up a tank that you already knew would work.

  7. googaw says:

    it has been done before

    Done by who, when, and how? Enough with the hand-waving already , let’s have some specifics! What we have here with the “self-replicating machine” is some economically illiterate sci-fi blown up into an economically illiterate religion, orders of magnitude divorced from reality. People who make lists of elements on the moon and just assume they will magically self-assemble into modern technology, and other people who quote such “studies” as authoritative evidence for the feasibility of “self-replicating robots”. Here we have a cult(ure) seriously out of touch with reality.

    The space environment is not made of magic pixie dust that repeals the laws of economics and and removes the vast complexity that is involved in the totality of modern technology, with our modern economy with its millions of different kinds of interdependent machines and workers. Indeed, with the lack natural habitats makes the space environment is far more hostile to the kind of small economies that have actually existed on some Pacific islands and old frontier and medieval hinterland villages.

    All space technology that has ever been built and that anybody knows how to build is utterly dependent on an economy based on a division among millions of specialized machines and specialized neighbor. It hardly follows that redesign for a much smaller economy is anything less than an astronomically complex task that will take centuries to accomplish. And I have seen no evidence that the proponents of the mythological “self-replicating robot”, save for some brief clues about the need for simplified processes suggested by Trent above, have made any progress towards figuring out how to implement such an economy or even know how to starting going about the required massive redesign of every essential machine and process we have (and there are tens of thousands of them) from the ground up. They don’t, for example, seem to show any familiarity with the technology of the old nearly self-sufficient village (blacksmith, carpenter, etc.) which came far closer to actually achieving something approaching self-sufficiency than anybody has ever accomplished or could readily accomplish with modern technology. You’d think if they were actually interested in reality they’d study some relevant aspects of it, but they don’t. It’s all about the magic pixie dust of space that repeals reality and allows our dreams to come true.

    Enough with the hand-waving already, let’s see some specifics! Stop the blather and start with the parts lists. Put up or shut up.

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Hey guys, lets keep this civil, or I’ll lock the comments thread.

  9. googaw says:


    division among…specialized neighbor.

    Should of course be specialized labor. A nice Freudian slip on my part as another relevant aspect about our economy is that these are almost all strangers, not neighbors . So we have almost no clue about the details of how they make what they make. We just go down to the hardware store or to a web site and purchase the results. But in space the shipping costs of that order will be tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Wish and dream and imagine all you like but there is no magic pixie dust or “self-replicating robot” that will make Home Depots start popping up on the moon or in LEO. Every single Space Machine must either be built on earth and launched, at extremely high cost, or redesigned in every excruciating detail from the ground up to be part of a far smaller (in terms of variety of labor and machines) economy in space. If you aren’t willing to dive into the details of such redesign, then you aren’t serious, you’re just an idle daydreamer, and you should just stick to writing entertaining sci-fi and stop pretending that it has anything to do with economic reality.

  10. A_M_Swallow says:

    Silicon chips are made using water based acids and cut with carbon (diamond) edged saws. That sounds like a poor process for the Moon.

    We are going to need to know what the melting point of lunar basalt is to make machines that process liquid metals.

  11. googaw says:

    Sorry Jon, I didn’t see your caution until I had already posted that last. It’s not intended as a personal attack against anybody in particular, and I apologize if anybody takes it that way. I will tone it down.

  12. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    No worries googaw, I was warning people that they were getting close to the line, not that they had crossed it.


  13. Karl Hallowell says:

    Done by who, when, and how? Enough with the hand-waving already , let’s have some specifics!

    When I said, “been done before” with respect to IC chip fab I was referring to the current terrestrial infrastructure for building electronics. But it’s worth noting that that’s actually the second such success, with the human mind, being the first (using microscopic self-replicating machines called “cells” no less!). And as to chip fab, it’s actually been done several times since there are a number of competitors that had to start from near scratch to build competitive labs (for example, the Japanese and Taiwanese companies that build important parts of the system).

    As to the “orders of magnitude divorced from reality” issue, that is just an unusually hard engineering problem. At least we agree that it’s just a matter of improving the above process by orders of magnitude (which to be honest, is a problem that we had to do the first time as well). Not that it is impossible in the first place. I consider that an adequate level of agreement.

    On an earlier comment of yours, googaw:

    Sorry to say, the “self-replicating robot” is sheer economic fantasy. That electronic furnace easily has dozens of unique parts made out a wide variety of materials, and then we need the hundreds of machines to make those parts

    The furnace is the first machine required by Dan Gingery to build a basic set of machine shop tools (lathe, mill, drill press, and shaper). All you need to start things off is a human, a source of workable metal, a furnace that can melt the metal, and some means to pour and cast the metal. I imagine most of the parts in the electrical furnace can be made directly using these machines. The rest can be made by some hierarchy of machines which started with machines made by these first few and the appropriate resources.

    The hard part in the above is replacing the human.

  14. Pete says:

    The hard part in the above is replacing the human.

    To some extent I think this may be a population critical number problem. The more people that can be effectively settled in space the greater the chances of success will be.

    An inflatable shell 15m in diameter by 30m long, roughly ten times the volume of the ISS could be launched on one Falcon 9. It would take a few more launches to kit it out but the point being accommodating a lot of people in space is not necessarily that hard. Add a couple of kilometer long tether between two of these with an elevator and it is possible to spin for artificial gravity – adding more spoked modules as desired.

    Getting more people into space for less is I suspect in many cases easier than trying to develop complicated technologies ahead of time that enable fewer people to make do. People are, not surprisingly, incredibly good at surviving and carving out a future for themselves – get them there in sufficient numbers with some basic resources and I suspect they will start figuring out the great many details and making it all work. This is what human history is all about.

  15. googaw says:

    Karl, your suggestion falls extremely short of a complete list of the parts of the furnace, much less a complete list of the processes needed to make each part, much less what are in turn needed to make those machines and so on. The devil is in the details, which grow exponentially. The human, as extremely expensive as he is, is the least of our worries when it comes to this problem.

  16. googaw says:

    Pete, one can think of it as a division of labor between machines as well as between humans, and machines can be substituted for some or (as is the case so far for space commerce) all of the on-site people, with the human work being done where they can live far more affordably, on earth. The problem then becomes how to radically redesign those machines so that they can mostly build and repair each other, with teleoperation, 3D printed designs, and other instructions designed by people on earth and uploaded. Part frontier village technology (e.g. a blacksmithy and machine shop that can make any part out of meteoric iron that you want, as long as it’s crude) and part extremely flexible manufacturing, but fused somehow.

    Yep, that’s hand-waving bigtime. 🙂 But it seems to be the long-term general direction space technology is going to go.

    In the much more practical and realistic world of current space commerce, one can think of all the different orbital constellations this way. Instead of having, as the early writers thought, one space station to do everything, we have dozens of constellations, each specially designed and located for a different task. A division of labor between machines and humans with the people domiciled on earth where we can afford to live in cozy comfort. Space machines process and transport bits far more cheaply than atoms, so surveillance and communications is happening far sooner than the refueling, repairing, mining, smithing and other manipulations of matter.

  17. Pete says:

    3D printing tends to be slower, lower strength and much more expensive. There are some things it does well – like visual models, but generally speaking CNC machining centers and a whole lot of spare cutters would probably be more advisable. Especially if the swarf could be recycled. 10 ton could probably make a reasonably capable workshop – one that could be maintained and added to as economics allowed. With frequent launch it should be possible to operate a decent workshop in space. They have workshops in Antarctica… If you can get a reasonable number of people into space then you should also be able to get a reasonable number of workshops there.

    I remember a little robotic insect with a milling head on it – it sat over a block of foam and by moving itself accordingly machined 3D foam shapes. Developing generic teleoperated robots like this that could do machining, assembly and so forth might be useful – and not impossible.

    But again, it is not necessary to solve all these problems now, only create a sufficiently large and well resourced colony that can invoke economics to solve these problems for itself. I suspect if we had lowish cost launch and much larger inflatable space habitat volumes as previously suggested – people would naturally figure out the rest.

    A robotic rocket system that could go to the moon and retrieve lunar LOX/LH2 and regolith and return it to LEO would also be very enabling (but a serious technical challenge). I think this would start a mining and transport industry that could quickly grow and lay the foundations for a large moon colony. It would also greatly accelerate the growth of the LEO colonies.

  18. googaw says:

    Pete, a robot going to the moon to bring back material to LEO is an astronomically easier job than either building a manned space colony or building a largely self-sufficient set of machines.

    Transhab/Bigelow technology only provides a factor of about 2-4 improvement over the aluminum pressure vessels the ISS uses. And such costs account for less than half the cost of a space station. ISS costs about $120 billion to house 6 people, or $20 billion per person. So taking the optimistic estimate it will still cost $12.5 billion per inhabitant to build such a space colony on earth and launch it — a factor of 100,000 greater than the typical cost of a house. A space colony cannot be anywhere close to economically feasible unless it is almost entirely built in space from materials mined in space, which gets us back to the problem of how to bootstrap an industrial economy in space.

    Whether CNC mills or 3D printers or a set of Gingery machines, these kinds of setups that eliminate division of labor are very slow processes. It takes several years and dozens of trips to the hardware store and mail orders (for thousands of parts and materials and tools unavailable in space) to replicate a Gingery setup, and the CNC mills are even worse in that regard. At least the Gingery setup is going in the right direction of more self-sufficiency, but it is still very dependent on the products of our global economy. And it will take many months of full-time work by an expert craftsman just to make most (by no means close to all) the parts of just one typical machine such as an internal combustion engine or electrical motor, whereas on earth they can be mass produced in the thousands per week. The extreme division of labor in our modern economy greatly speeds up manufacture, and eliminating that division will slow it down to an extreme degree.

    In contrast, robotic mining is relatively straightforward. Even though miners on earth are far cheaper than astronauts in space, there are a number of remotely-controlled mines being built, with at least one such robotic mine already being operated, and of course there is deep sea oil drilling and mining where the action happens far away from the remote operators. The big challenge of mining the moon will be reducing the scale to something economical, since the markets (e.g. propellant) are small enough to be satisfied in the near term by very small machines, and the launch costs are so extreme only very small machines are affordable to transport to the moon on a private investor’s budget.

    Once we have a big stream of material coming to earth orbit from the moon and asteroids, we can start the very long process of bootstrapping an industrial economy to process it into a variety of substitutes for things we launch from earth, to make larger space platforms and shielding and radiators, and raw materials to make things in microgravity and vacuum to export to earth, and eventually to make space colonies.

  19. Karl Hallowell says:

    Karl, your suggestion falls extremely short of a complete list of the parts of the furnace, much less a complete list of the processes needed to make each part, much less what are in turn needed to make those machines and so on. The devil is in the details, which grow exponentially. The human, as extremely expensive as he is, is the least of our worries when it comes to this problem.

    First, I don’t see the point to having a complete list of parts and processes. We don’t have the room to post it here and it isn’t necessary just to discuss whether it is possible or not.

    What you seem to be claiming is that each step and each part or tool requires more parts and tools in an ever expanding tree of complexity. The problem with this assertion is that the complete list of equipment, processes, necessary machines and tools has to be finite in the first place, or we wouldn’t have furnaces (and these other tools) on Earth. In other words, we already have an existence proof that one can make an electric furnace with self-replicating infrastructure (human society).

    The reason the tree collapses is because there is a lot of redundancy in the tree. For example, the machine shop tools I mentioned above, can make most of the parts of the furnace directly (for example, all of the fasteners such as screws, nuts, ring clamps, rods, etc). And as I see it, most of the remaining stuff can be made with tools made by these basic tools. I doubt you need to get more than three steps removed in order to make everything that is necessary for the electric furnace. I can’t prove that without actually making an electric furnace in this way, but these tools are extremely powerful in the variety of parts and tools they can make directly.

    The question is not whether it can be done, but just how much simpler can we make the process? That is, how much we can reduce the number of parts in the furnace, the number of tools needed to make it, and the number of steps required to produce a furnace in the end? At this point, it’s worth noting that human society is not geared to producing an electric furnace with the minimal amount of resources and effort. Building parts directly with a small machine shop isn’t usually the most efficient or desired way to do it, hence we don’t usually do it that way.

    I think we can get simpler to the point that a single person could make a small machine shop from a furnace and some starter tools and in turn build a second furnace and duplicate batch of starter tools. From what I understand, the Dan Gingery approach mentioned above takes somewhere under a year (maybe just a few man months for an experienced machinist) of labor to go from furnace to the four other tools I mentioned. This includes manufacture of secondary tools (such as rods for holding parts being worked on, cutting bits for the lathe, and drill bits). I don’t know how much of the process involves outside dependencies, but from what I’ve seen it’s not much. Someone who is experienced in the process might be able to streamline it further and remove any remaining external dependencies.

  20. Pete says:

    Pete, a robot going to the moon to bring back material to LEO is an astronomically easier job than either building a manned space colony or building a largely self-sufficient set of machines.

    As low hanging fruit goes it is still hard (it is also a problem of economics).

    Transhab/Bigelow technology only provides a factor of about 2-4 improvement over the aluminum pressure vessels the ISS uses. And such costs account for less than half the cost of a space station. ISS costs about $120 billion to house 6 people, or $20 billion per person.

    When all you have is a space shuttle everything looks like the ISS (including a Bigelow module). I would suggest that space station cost should be roughly comparable to and almost directly proportional to launch cost. Assuming this a $500/kg launch cost might equate to a $1000/kg space station cost. If we assumed 10ton/person then this would come out at $10m/person – still expensive but not impossibly so. Of course “living” expenses would be on top of this, but would be similarly proportional. If we could with industry maturity get launch costs down to $100/kg, and I would think we would (considering base fuel cost), then a $2m home per person would be possible. This is not that far beyond some expensive places on Earth – and this does not even need extra terrestrial resources. (It would not surprise me if carbon fiber got below $10/kg in the next ten years – total costs are driven by launch costs).

    Extra terrestrial resources are not necessary for initial space settlement, they can come later when space settlement is ready to take the next step. Extra terrestrial resource development and utilization might start by skimming the Earth’s atmosphere for volatiles from space and retrieving LOX/LH2/water/regolith from the moon and asteroids using robotic vehicles. It will take a long time to develop the first space settlement, by the time that is done, autonomously retrieving extra terrestrial resources might be far more practical. Extra terrestrial resource utilization is not the immediate problem – getting people settled in orbit is.

  21. googaw says:

    I don’t see the point to having a complete list of parts and processes. We don’t have the room to post it here and it isn’t necessary just to discuss whether it is possible or not.

    A complete bill of materials is absolutely necessary to this discussion, because without the details one can have no understanding of what we are talking about. Every shortcut we make at the first step is like pruning a tree at its base, so if we are not complete and thorough with the very first parts list we ignore and wrongly discount a staggering amount of utterly necessary detail. For example your sweeping claim that you can make “most of the parts” of the furnace in a (Gingery?) machine shop is both wrong and, more importantly, profoundly irrelevant, since it is the parts, tools, and other inputs that you *can’t* completely make in the shop cause the tree explosion. I am absolutely talking about the details, and nothing but the details, and if you don’t understand that we are completely talking past each other.

    As for the tree, finite != small, or anything close to small. Yes, it starts to converge after it expands out to several million or so people, machines, processes, and services. Slowly as one approaches this one gets more redundancy. It is very difficult to make modern technology with a smaller dependency network than this because our global economy and all the technology in it are designed to take advantage of the best of all the rest of the technology in it. A smaller network requires a radical redesign of every machine from the ground up — and Gingery certainly had a good approach here, but fell very far short of the claimed self-bootstrapping machine shop.

    The result will be machines that take far longer to make, are much less precise, far slower, use much more energy, produce far more waste per useful product output, and generally are much less efficient than the equipment we are used to in earthside plants and factories. But such machines nevertheless might prove very useful, even crucial, in the future of space when ISRU makes the more easily accessible raw materials cheap but industrial infrastructure remains quite expensive. I certainly don’t want to discourage anybody from designing such machines, I utterly encourage it, but I want to see real designs, not hand-waving rhapsodies that ignore the utterly necessary details.

    The only thing replicating here is the profoundly wrong but seemingly addictive meme of the “self-replicating robot” and similar mythologies. When the spreaders of these memes only engage in grand planning and hand-waving rather than dive into the utterly necessary details, and fail even to appreciate the well-known economics of the division of labor at work here, it’s easy for them to satisfy themselves by waving away the exponentially exploding details and talk abstractly about converging trees when the network doesn’t converge before the details of millions of often highly skilled human jobs and sophisticated machines, processes, parts, and services are taken into account. A task that they don’t want to even start to tackle.

    This is something economists have known since at least Adam Smith, so if things like parts lists are too concrete, at least try some economics reading about the division of labor in a modern economy. Or Google “I, Pencil.” I’m hardly making up anything original here.

  22. googaw says:

    Pete, the costs of Skylab, Salyut, Mir, and every other actual space habitat were similarly far beyond the range of economic feasibility.

  23. Googaw,
    It’s worth noting that Bigelow seems to think that he can get his 6-person space habitat set up for less than $500M (ie more than two orders of magnitude less than ISS)…do you think he’s full of it, out of his league, lying? Or is there a possibility that manned space programs that are meant as jobs programs and modern manned space ventures that are meant as for-profit endeavors might actually produce different results?

    That said, I still think that Pete’s “send 1000 people to orbit every year for $5B” idea is a little bit silly. Most of all because what’s the reason for wanting to send them there? What value are they producing? Etc. I’d love to see a day where there was enough commerce on orbit that needed people that 1000 people were either paying their own way or being sent by their company or research institution every year. But just sending people for the sake of sending people seems pointless.


  24. googaw says:

    Here’s a sketch of a procedure for using CNC mills and/or 3D printers for making parts out of meteoric iron based on uploaded designs:

    (1) upload instructions for a *negative* (mold) of the part. Either cut this out of a polystyrene foam block with a CNC mill or print out the foam with a 3D printer.

    (2) using the lost-foam process, make the handful of iron parts that will form the mold for further polystyrene parts.

    (3) using that iron mold, mass-produce as many polystyrene positives as we will need parts of this kind.

    (4) surround each polystyrene positive with a ceramic coating and sand (hopefully simply sifted regolith will work for the sand, but the ceramic coating may be tricky). then inject (pressure feed) molten iron, which causes the foam to evaporate out leaving a solidifying molten part. (this is called the “lost foam” process and is also used in step 2 above).

    (5) use a CNC machine to turn the cast part into a finished part.

    One of the key interesting things is that, given the plentitude of meteoric iron in certain asteroids, we may make parts that are very big. Imagine a machine made out of several thousand cast and milled parts with dimensions of tens to hundreds of meters. Since it’s always in microgravity we might make some extremely large structures, joints, pipes, valves, pressure vessels, and mechanisms that couldn’t structurally exist on earth. We can “print out” with the above steps any structure or piping network or mechanism you want as long as it’s all made out of meteoric iron. For example, build the structural backbone for extremely large parabolic mirrors, and build pressure vessels and mechanisms to convert the resulting gigawatts of solar thermal power into mechanical power.

    Making the polystyrene from ISRU materials will probably be quite a bit more complex than getting the iron, and of course we can’t neglect the many other lesser parts and processes involved, which will be hopefully almost entirely reusable and thus affordably importable from earth. And I’m neglecting that real structures and pipe networks and mechanisms are made out of far more than just the the apparent metal parts (e.g. we often need coatings and lubricants). But this is the general idea for a starting point and suggests a vast new design space for future space machines once we can start mining asteroids.

  25. googaw says:

    Jon, Bigelow also invests in MUFON to investigate alien visitations. Because of that, in addition to my reasons below, I don’t take him seriously. Get back to me about Bigelow if he actually launches and houses an astronaut alive and I’ll tab up how much it actually cost him.

    That said, Transhab/Bigelow technology is good stuff, but it is not anything close to an orders-of-magnitude breakthrough.

    As for whether government bureaucracy has added orders of magnitude to the price of all the different space stations (Salyut, Skylab, Mir, ISS) they have built, most of those under competitive Cold War conditions, I find that extremely unlikely. A factor of two to four maybe, a factor of eight a small possibility, but no more.

    The orders-of-magnitude error made by government is in building space stations in the first place under the pretense of economic justifications, when they are profoundly uneconomical ways to develop space. They’re not useful infrastructure, but they might have been quite effective Cold War symbology: “We can orbit and fly over your country a bigger bomb-shaped thing with a rocket than you can. And in the process we can wax poetic about what wonderfully benevolent people we are to convert our swords into plowshares.”

    Commercializing a space station is like trying to make a factory or port facility out of a cathedral. Space stations and cathedrals are architecture for the sake of sending a message, not substantive economical tools. The selling and building of ISS as “infrastructure’ was a kind of orders-of-magnitude mistake that government planners on the cutting edge of technology do often make: namely categorical errors.

  26. Googaw,
    Just looking at the cost difference between say EELV development (~$5.5B to develop a brand new booster engine, two rocket factories, two rockets, three newish upper stages, several launch pads, etc) and the cost to develop just the Ares-I, I think it’s safe to say that the Arsenal system really does inflate costs enormously. Also the $100B pricetag for space station that people bandy about includes a lot of the shuttle costs. Space station didn’t have to be built for shuttle. A lot of the delays, redevelopments, etc were all driven by the fact that ISS was more a jobs program than any attempt at actually achieving things.

    I really think that $500M is a reasonable amount of money to develop and launch a manned system like what Bigelow is trying to do. Whether or not he personally can deliver is an open question. Whether or not the market conditions (ie availability of crew launch solutions) permit him to make it work is also an open question. But I think that he’s at least in the right order of magnitude cost-wise for developing that sort of capability.

    If you’re up to it, in-spite of the risks, I’d be willing to buy you a steak dinner (or an equivalent pricy meal) if say 7 years from now Bigelow has either folded, or hasn’t yet housed a person on-orbit in one of his facilities. I typically don’t bet (religious compunctions against gambling), but I’m offering to buy you a dinner if I’m wrong.


  27. googaw says:

    Here’s something interesting to “print” in meteoric iron: a chemical plant “on a chip.” On a very big “chip”, namely a square 100 meters or more on a side, but probably only a meter or so thick.

    We need to launch a 3D printer and CNC mill that can unfold and telescope their structures to cover a very large area (i.e. 100 meters on a side square or more). The chemical plant can be cast using the steps above in as few as two large pieces (plus a variety of very small pieces like valves to be installed by robots), its internals detailed appropriately, and then the pieces sandwiched together and sealed. The key feature is that the “printed” plant contains millions of channels, microchannels, heat exchangers, reactors, splitters, mixers, and separators in a nearly arbitrarily complicated network. It all sits in a basically 2D area, with the exception of a wrinkle that we’ll need the rare crossover structure when one chemical flow crosses another and of course the heat exchangers involve parallel flows.

    For chemical plant ops that need gravity, they can be put on a pair of “chips” at each end of a tether rotated for gravity.

    In addition we need a “coating printer” to coat the insides of pipes and reactors with teflon or other appropriate coatings. Robots will be needed to install catalysts in such reactors as require them.
    Robots will be needed to assemble moving parts such as valves, and electronics imported from earth to control them. Many other important details neglected, as usual.

    These chemical plants, with hundreds to thousands of small reactors each, are then put to work processing lunar, asteroidal, and cometary volatiles into a very wide variety of useful chemicals.

  28. Googaw, Pete, Trent….

    You know all this back and forth about self-replication, self-sufficient space colonies, etc. is sort of fascinating…but it has very little to do with the post. It might be better to take this discussion offline, or at least to another blog post. Not trying to be a censor, but…I’d like to keep things on-topic.


  29. googaw says:

    Jon, the only wrinkle with such a bet is that he might get far enough to actually fly somebody, but only by adding a fat government contract to further generous doses of his own money. Despite his convictions I find a conversion of that company to government funding and essentially NASA contracting or sub-contracting, likely if it doesn’t just fold. If you build cathedrals you’re going to end up working for the church. So I’ll buy you that steak dinner if, without direct or subcontracted government funding (whether paid, booked as revenues, or used as collateral for loans) covering more than 50% of the cost, in the next 7 years Bigelow houses a human on-orbit for at least a week, but for the entire duration safely.

    Alternatively, I’d be willing to bet that he can’t do so for less than $5 billion total expenditures to date, regardless of who funds it. An order of magnitude above your $500 million number but comfortably below what I expect it would actually cost.

  30. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Your call. I’d take you up on either offer. Which is your preference?


  31. googaw says:

    I prefer the second. Deal!

  32. Pete says:

    Pete, the costs of Skylab, Salyut, Mir, and every other actual space habitat were similarly far beyond the range of economic feasibility.

    As has every such launch vehicle (within that context) – I think the two maybe linked.

  33. Pete says:

    That said, I still think that Pete’s “send 1000 people to orbit every year for $5B” idea is a little bit silly. Most of all because what’s the reason for wanting to send them there? What value are they producing? Etc.

    Yes that is the challenge, finding an economic basis for a sizable space colony. I am not arguing for a “build it and they will come” approach. Merely that there will be some significant number of inhabitants beyond which economies of scale kick in and space settlement becomes increasingly economically viable – a tipping point so to speak. But I do think it desirable to find an economically viable development path that leads to that tipping point.

    Finding someway to construct a substantial space infrastructure service industry in space might be one such path – combined with dramatic cost reduction.

    I would note that the world spends a few hundred billions dollars on space related industries/programs per year. If a space colony could somehow viably tap into a significant proportion of that market and costs could also be dramatically reduced, then maybe a sizable space colony could be economically viable.

  34. googaw says:

    I would note that the world spends a few hundred billions dollars on space related industries/programs per year

    Most of this money is spent on the groundside equipment. For example the amount spent on the corresponding ground stations is far larger than the amount spent on communications or GPS satellites. The actual amount spent on space hardware is in the tends of billions per year. And the portion of space spending that actually has practical use (i.e. real commerce and military) instead of being a government-funded end in itself (most of NASA) takes the form of necessarily dispersed constellations that gain no benefit from a centralized space station in a different orbit.

  35. Pete says:

    “I would note that the world spends a few hundred billions dollars on space related industries/programs per year”

    Most of this money is spent on the groundside equipment. For example the amount spent on the corresponding ground stations is far larger than the amount spent on communications or GPS satellites. The actual amount spent on space hardware is in the tends of billions per year. And the portion of space spending that actually has practical use (i.e. real commerce and military) instead of being a government-funded end in itself (most of NASA) takes the form of necessarily dispersed constellations that gain no benefit from a centralized space station in a different orbit.

    Indeed, still there are perhaps different opportunities there as technologies evolve. The point being – specific viable business models not overall market size are the primary limiting factor.

  36. Paul says:

    Wow! What a thread. It just goes and goes… See, Jon, this is what you get when you focus on all that real world business, and neglect your real job (ie, pandering to us.) Dangerously pent up commentitis.

    Ahem, anyway, some thoughts that occurred while reading the thread…

    There were a couple of comments somewhere up in the 40’s, along the lines of “automated transport / robot-mining will be hard…” by comparison to building a forge or machine shop.

    I’m wondering if the problem many are having with googaw’s demand for a list-of-list is that when it comes to mining, for example, we all already have some sense of the complexity involved. (Even if we’ve never been anywhere near a mine.)

    A mine is kinda like a lunar colony. It starts out with a barren site, away from existing infrastructure. Everything has to be shipped in, not just mining equipment. Everything from living quarters, to pumps, to trucks/loaders, etc etc. Every bolt, every pipe, every cable.

    For that reason, I think we all have some vague sense of how complex that is. So we pick a single thing, say a front-end-loader, and we imagine how hard it is to make a lunarised or asteroidised version of that, then we multiply that “space difficulty factor” by the sheer number of components we’ve pictured and our brains seize up and we go and have a cry.

    But when it comes to factories, we look at small operations (like machine shops, back yard forges, etc), and say, hey we can build a space version of that! So we can build solar panels from local materials! w00t!

    But we don’t feel the weight of infrastructure as we do with mining. We don’t consider the vast infrastructure that supports them, every screw and wire and bolt that they bought. Or every chemical they use. Or every service, power/gas/water/waste-removal. We underestimate the number of hidden parts by many orders of magnitude. “Hey, if we had a solar forge, we could build an entire machine shop!” “Hey if we have a machine shop, we can build a solar forge!” “Awesome, bootstrap!”

    Speaking of… I think you’ve gotten carried away with the list of parts, and the list of machines needed to build those parts, and ever expanding list of those machines’ parts and their machines and ad infinitum. I think it has blurred your point. You don’t need to drill down to final redundancies. Rather, there are two lists: The list of initial infrastructure that needs to be supplied from Earth, and the list of infrastructure and consumables that we need to make in-situ. The expansion of the second list stops at each item that is sourced from the first. And I think it is the first list that is the most important. It’s not so important how many parts/machines we need to build in space to make, say, ISRU solar panels, it’s how many things we need to import to get to that point.

    We only manufacture in-situ when it reduces the mass of the first list. Ie, when the mass of a machine to build part X is less than the combined masses of all the part X’s we would otherwise have had to ship.

    Finally, Re: launch costs, $10,000/kg or $100/kg.

    There’s a few numbers being thrown around, and arguments over whether those numbers are realistic or wild fantasies. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Every reduction in launch cost reduces the need for ISRU as much as it lowers the cost. So the relative cost/value equations don’t change, regardless of launch costs.

    Example: Water delivered to the ISS has a value. Whatever it costs to launch water to the ISS from Earth. Say $5m/tonne. If you can deliver ISRU-water for less than $5m/tonne, you have a potentially profitable business. As launch costs drop, it becomes cheaper for you to set up for ISRU production of water. But it also drops the VALUE of that water, since it is proportionally cheaper to just launch it from Earth.

    Worse, if your on-Earth R&D costs are a large fraction of the cost of setting up ISRU, then lower launch prices will actually harm ISRU. If launch costs do dramatically drop, we have to abandon ISRU as a method for bootstrapping manned colonies and concentrate of value-delivered-to-Earth.

  37. Paul says:

    Wow, my comment just went on and on, too.

  38. googaw says:

    Paul, your paragraphs 3-7 are very well put.

    As for the list, the complete bill of materials, it’s utterly crucial in the context of people waving their hands about a “self-replicating robot” or “self-sufficient economy.” Which I don’t think we’re allowed to discuss anymore so I’ll leave it at that. If OTOH there is a substantial and continual import of spare parts from earth, then obviously one does not need to drill down to examine how those parts were made, you just do what an engineer ordinarily would in our modern economy, order them out of a catalog.

    Lower launch costs don’t reduce the need for ISRU, they increase the need for it by increasing the overall size of the space market. Organizations will fly new more functional, because heavier, missions to take advantage of lower launch costs, and more function brings in more revenue. It’s true that as you say the ISRU will have to come in at a correspondingly lower cost to compete with the same materials transported from earth at the lower cost. But more materials will be transported overall, so an X% ISRU share before the launch cost reduction will be absolutely smaller than the same X% ISRU share of the larger pie after the launch cost reduction. Also, lower launch costs are more likely to lower the up-front capital costs of ISRU projects below investment thresholds, making them more likely to happen earlier. If you can launch heavier ISRU equipment you don’t need as much specialized miniaturization and that lowers the R&D costs in addition to the savings on the launch costs.

    So basically, there is more synergy between lower launch costs and ISRU costs than there is competition.

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