The Spirit of La Mancha

I’ve recently been accused of suffering from the “quixotic notion” that I can “sell my idea to NASA in lieu of their own plan”.

I’m mostly a private space oriented guy. I’m also rather strongly libertarian leaning. So why am I wasting so much time pointing out flaws in the Exploration Systems Architecture Study? Why am I wasting time talking about alternative lunar architectures? Why am I wasting so much time suggesting how NASA could do things differently? Shouldn’t I just let them do what they want to do and focus on my own stuff?

There actually is a little method to my madness. I do have ideas for private space exploration that I’m constantly rethinking, evolving, and maturing. And I’ll get to some of those soon. But I feel compelled to try and tie up what I’ve started here for several important reasons.

One reason is that as a US taxpayer, I have a right to demand accountability from public agencies. NASA has no more of a divine right to my money than does the Department of Education, the Social Security Administration, or any of a number of federal agencies that seem to act as though us citizens were peons that exist only to fund their grandiose schemes. Many people act as though NASA gets its money “from the government”, but the reality is that it gets its money from us. Each and every one of us that is a US citizen is being forced, at pain of jail-time or worse, to support NASA and other government agencies. In return, we have the right to demand oversight, and to try and make sure that that money they get from us is spent wisely, and in a way that is beneficial to the nation as a whole, not just beneficial to politicians or the connected few.

Another reason is that NASA has a lot of potential to impact things in the space industry for good. As the now ULA guys pointed out in one of the papers on the Lockheed Atlas site, NASA’s exploration program is going to increase the demand for space launch by about a factor of four. Most of that is propellants. If they actually tried to you know, follow the rules given to them in their charter to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space,” they could have a massive positive influence on commercial spaceflight. That much extra demand (and helping to prove out and develop the technologies they would need to exploit that possibility) would help draw badly needed investment dollars into this industry, and would open up many opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures. But instead, they want to develop their own vehicles, which are going to mostly be used to launch LOX, LH2, Methane, and hypergols, oh, with a little side of space hardware. NASA could greatly lower their costs, allowing them to achieve far more for far less, by leveraging off of the capabilities and catalyzing the development of the private sector. They could build a lunar base, explore the moon, do unmanned and manned Mars expeditions, and explore beyond even that, all within their current budget. And it bugs me seeing them sell their birthright so to speak for a mess of political pottage.

But I guess the biggest and most critical reason why I’m doing this is because in a way this is a war of ideas. At the very core of ESAS is the claim that the only way to safely and effectively reach the moon is by using massively expensive government built Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles, and that any method using off-the-shelf transportation is fundamentally expensive, complicated, and unworkable. In order to justify spending $50B to develop two new vehicles, NASA has to make a strong case that there is no other way of doing things that would get as good or better results for less money. At the very heart of the rationale for ESAS is the belief that we can’t do on-orbit operations in a cost effective, safe or reliable manner.

How on earth do you think private companies are going to be able to raise investment money to do stuff that NASA feels is too complicated, too risky, too expensive, and too unreliable? If you look at the public discussion, there is a large amount of the public that just believes whatever NASA says. They’re the guys with the PhDs, the steely eyed missle men after all, what makes you think that you know better than them?

If we ever want to see these critical technologies (on-orbit propellant transfer, surface rendezvous, multi-launch technologies, rendezvous and docking, reusable transfer vehicles and landers, ISRU, etc) developed, we can’t afford to allow the conventional wisdom to remain that such things won’t work. Basically, in a way, NASA has put us in a position where if we shut our mouths and toe the line, we’re almost guaranteeing that the future will just be a repeat of the past. They’re putting us in a position that if we actually want to see a future with those capabilities, that we have to fight in the arena of ideas to convince people that they are wrong.

Now, I don’t think that Griffin and company are evil, or have malicious intent. Hardly! I sincerely think that their hearts really are in good places. Doug Stanley talked Griffin into how good of an idea it would be to buy commercially delivered propellants on-orbit if the technology ever gets developed. They have good intentions. Look at COTS. That was a fundamentally good idea. If they go through on their promise to use commercial products as they become available, that will also be great (though I’m not holding my breath–look how tough the Shuttle constituencies are fighting for their continued existance–Do you really think they’ll give up without a fight once a solution better than the Shaft is in operation? Do you really think that political power won’t be brought to bear in that situation? That ATK is really going to say “aw shucks guys, they got a better system. We’ll just pack up our bags and go home”? That NASA won’t be able to find some sort of excuse to keep using the Shaft anyway?) As I said, it’s not that they have bad intentions, it’s just that they don’t seem to see the logical results of their actions, or that their actions and intentions are in conflict.

How are we going to find investors willing risk the money to develop on-orbit propellant transfer when they’re being told that multi-launch architectures are too unreliable? That the best way to get back to the moon is building Ares I and Ares V, and that any EELV or light launcher based system would require too many launches to be practical?

Who’s going to fund a commercial lunar transportation system if we’ve abandoned the field to those who claim the only way you can do lunar transportation is using HLVs?

Ideas matter.

Honestly, as much as I would like to see NASA change to a more commercial aligned position, I don’t really think it is likely to happen. But if we can sway the conventional wisdom that these other, more commercial approaches really are not only technically feasible, but technically and economically superior, it doesn’t really matter. In the end, NASA will do what NASA will do, but if we can convince potential investors that there really are more cost effective ways of doing things, it will have been worth it.

But if we abandon the field of ideas, and stick to our knitting, we’re setting ourselves seriously up for failure.

Making a commercial venture work is a daunting enough task in the best of times and in the best of industries. It requires not only talent, but a lot of luck. It requires convincing investors to risk large chunks of money that they or others have worked and sweated many years for. Fiduciary responsibility is real. If we just allow people to think that what ESAS is saying is gospel truth, that money will never be raised, those technologies will never be developed (or at least nowhere near as soon as they could be).

But I want to end by cutting back to the original comment that set off this post. Mark accused me of being quixotic. But I have to say that I’m glad that he accused me of that, because it reminded me of one of the most inspiring songs I’ve ever heard, and one that I feel is rather aprapos

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

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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.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

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 The Spirit of La Mancha

  1. redneck says:

    What is the percentage here that consider you technically conservative, as I do? Still looking for that rectangular container.

  2. Bill White says:

    Jon –

    Can you elaborate on why propellant transfer is a better short term target than using plug-n-play swappable tanks?

    Seems to me that being able to swap in filled tanks to a lunar lander or a Centaur-esque LEO-LUNO taxi is faster and safer than the transfer of cyro propellants.

    Assume ISRU lunar LOX. A stockpile of empty LOX tanks are on the lunar surface and can be examined by ultrasound or pressure tests or whatever to verify no weak points.

    Then they are filled with lunar LOX.

    An LSAM lands and jettisons an empty LOX tank which is taken for inspection and refilling and a full LOX tank installed. Repeat the same procedure in LEO or EML-1 or 2 for methane, propane, LH2 or whatever.

    If a swappable tank goes bad, re-cycle it for scrap. If an integral tank goes bad, what do you do?

    = = =

    It seems to me that starting up ISRU lunar LOX would be the most productive point of leverage NASA could provide. Once ISRU LOX is proven there are zillions of potential good architectures for the private sector to develop via trial and error.

  3. James Antifaev says:

    Jon,

    Well said!

    The details about propellant delivery are irrelevant here. The main point, which you articulated very well, is that we need to recognize and deal with the impact of NASA policy on the investment climate and public opinion.

    Really, an excellent post.

  4. Bill White says:

    Jon, this creates opportunity:

    How on earth do you think private companies are going to be able to raise investment money to do stuff that NASA feels is too complicated, too risky, too expensive, and too unreliable? If you look at the public discussion, there is a large amount of the public that just believes whatever NASA says. They’re the guys with the PhDs, the steely eyed missle men after all, what makes you think that you know better than them?

    There is money to be made from the publicity of beating NASA back to the Moon. How much money do you need to put two people on the Moon before NASA gets the job done?

    Nike will surely pay for logos on your spacesuits and Gatorade would pay for video of the 13th and 14th people on the Moon popping open that product just after landing.

    Even Verizon Wireless — moments after touchdown on the Moon, flip open a cell phone: “Can you hear me now?”

    Heh! — Place that first call to NASA HQ! A phone call like that would wake up NASA and America more effectively than anything posted at a blog.

    Do a budget and start calculating how much media and marketing money you would need to pull this off.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Partisans

    Why is it some people are so dismissive of non-NASA manned spaceflight and some people are so dismissive of NASA? I want to see them both succeed! In that light, if the NASA plans have serious flaws they should be pointed out. NASA has already backed off from some initial ESAS silliness such as the gigantor 5.5m CEV capsule and the air starting SSME.

  6. tankmodeler says:

    >>I want to see them both succeed!
    So do most of us, I believe, but, in my heart of hearts, I doubt that leopard can change its spots.

    >>In that light, if the NASA plans have serious flaws they should be pointed out.

    Jon’s and the many other attempts to talk NASA out of the ESAS have generally been dismissed as noise from the blogosphere. There is a fundamental reason for this, NASA isn’t playing with a purely technical or even commercial deck. Their deck is very political, beholden to all the big space interests that are spending that $50B and the Congressional interests that like having those $50B spent in their districts. Remember, all that money means jobs and high tech jobs = votes.

    >>NASA has already backed off from some initial ESAS silliness such as the gigantor 5.5m CEV capsule and the air starting SSME.

    NASA has backed off some items, sure, but the end result has been to reduce capabilities, add new hardware and development costs and delay launches by more than 1 year per year since the inception of the program, These are not the actions of a group who are responding to criticism. They are the actions of a group desperately trying to shoehorn the facts into their preferred shape and not into a shape that makes the most engineering or commercial sense.

    I am willing to admit, though, that it seems to be the best political shape…

    Paul

  7. Jon Goff says:

    John,
    What is the percentage here that consider you technically conservative, as I do?

    I think George Herbert might also fit into that group.

    Still looking for that rectangular container.

    ;-P

    ~Jon

  8. Habitat Hermit says:

    Superb post Jon.

    Redneck: I guess I do but in a good way; the “let’s do things better and have the numbers to prove it” way that has a high likelihood of attracting capital. And what’s the thing about a rectangular container? (I’m planning spherical ones myself).

    Bill White: great idea, especially if it can be snuck in somewhere in-between LM & BA manrating the Atlas 401 and NASAs landing. Someone could pull this off.

    Topic of partisanship: it’s not so much being partisan as being annoyed at NASAs “business as usual” (which of course does not truly involve business as such). Said in a different manner if you’re an individual or company that aims for an economically sustainable (profit part) space presense (progress part) then NASA is not the place to turn to. Look what happened when Bigelow “inherited” NASA-developed technology that they had effectivly shelved.

  9. Jon Goff says:

    Bill,
    Regarding tank swapping…I guess I just have a few key beefs with it:

    1-Tank swapping really doesn’t scale down very well. The weight of extra fittings and such is going to make the idea completely unworkable for tanks much smaller than 10klbs in size. That limits your options a lot.

    2-I do rocket plumbing for a living. It’s annoying enough trying to do it on the earth in a shirtsleeve environment. Trying to do it in space is going to be a royal pain in the neck.

    3-Designing a vehicle that uses tank swapping is going to require standardized tank sizes (so that you don’t have to analyze hundreds of possible configurations), which is going to mean that at best it can only be optimized for one launcher or maybe two. Every other launcher is going to be a bit too big or a bit too small.

    4-Lunar ISRU is still a fair way out (I’d say don’t expect too much before we’ve had people on the moon again for at least 5 years), so your current source of filled tanks is going to be earth–which means you’re likely going to end up tossing tanks instead of reusing them.

    5-Even with optimized tank sizes, your propellant fraction on such a vehicle is going to suck.

    6-I honestly think that settled propellant transfer is going to be easier to implement technically than tank swapping. Tank swapping *sounds* easy, but the devil is in the details, and with tank swapping, there are a *lot* of details.

    ~Jon

  10. Jon Goff says:

    Bill,
    While the media approach is interesting, it doesn’t give you a commercially sustainable solution. Not to mention the fact that I just really don’t know how much money you’re likely to get for doing such a stunt. You might be able to raise enough money, but I’m skeptical.

    It sounds cool, but I think it’s a long shot. I’ll get into my commercial ideas soon though.

    ~Jon

  11. Jon Goff says:

    Anonymous,
    It’s not so much that I want to see NASA’s plans to fail, as that I think that even if they succeed, NASA’s *current* plans aren’t much better than failure. If they took a smarter approach that really did more to catalyze space development, I’d be rooting for their approach a whole lot more. As it is though, their warmed over Apollo redux is rather boring.

    ~Jon

  12. Bill White says:

    Jon –

    As for media rights, one idea would be to blend Bigelow’s astronaut corps idea with the sale of TV rights to foreign nations.

    In other words, sell the TV rights for the first Japanese on the Moon to Japanese TV networks and the first Brazilian on the Moon in Brazil and the first Pole on the Moon in Warsaw (except that I read somewhere that there are more Polish people living in greater Chicagoland that in Warsaw) and the first Korean in Korea. And so on,

    There are a whole lot of countries to go through before we run out of “first XX”

    Then move on to universities.

    Persuade Stanford to fund a Stanford faculty on the Moon — after a few dozen “first nations” missions have lowered the cost. Will Stanford beat MIT and/or CalTech in accomplishing the first private faculty luanr mission?

    In the meantime — while all these missions are going on — ESPN funds a lunar sports arena.

    = = =

    Yes, I agree media money will run out. So you use that money to set up your up-front infrastructure to lower future costs.

  13. Michael Mealling says:

    Bill,
    The issue is that sponsorship money wants to sponsor a success. No sponsor wants their name on something that has major risk of not actually working out or ending up with loss of life. NASCAR works because people rarely die and teams have more than one car and can recover from an accident quickly.
    So to get that money you’re going to need to demonstrate successful early missions that lead to a high probability of success for that final sponsored mission.
    That’s the hardest part of this business: figuring out how to pay for the development and first couple of flights. After you’ve done that the sponsors and businesses show up. But you have to have several million to burn to get there.

  14. Bill White says:

    Exactly right, Michael:

    So to get that money you’re going to need to demonstrate successful early missions that lead to a high probability of success for that final sponsored mission.
    That’s the hardest part of this business: figuring out how to pay for the development and first couple of flights. After you’ve done that the sponsors and businesses show up. But you have to have several million to burn to get there.

    But there are work-arounds.

    For example, given today’s announcement that the lunar south pole is a destination, there could be a private sector COTS-like mission to pre-position supplies. NewSpace folk dream of having a hotel and chilled martinis awaiting the first NASA astronauts to return to the Moon but that may be difficult to accomplish.

    On the other hand, the private sector could send a cargo only supply drop of a basket of consumer goods — clean underwear from Hanes; Gatorade; spare batteries, whatever — the cargo drop pre-positioned within walking distance of the NASA landing site. CNN would probably pay for proprietary TV cameras to be pre-positioned on the lunar surface to show exclusive live footage of the incoming LSAM.

    The price you charge would then need to include the cost of insurance if the payload failed to be delivered safely. If the mission fails, the customers get their money back.

    Then, you only need to persuade the insurers that you will succeed in order to keep the premium affordable.

    Yup. It isn’t easy.

  15. redneck says:

    Hermit,

    I believe in checking out such things as Lunar laser launch.Pure O2 exhaust eases ISRU propulsion procurement as opposed to importing or locating hydrogen.
    Can’t remember where I heard of this one.

    Being in favor of checking out things like this has led a few friends to suggest that I could’t even find the box.

  16. Bill White says:

    More thoughts inspired by this comment from Michael Mealling:

    The issue is that sponsorship money wants to sponsor a success. No sponsor wants their name on something that has major risk of not actually working out or ending up with loss of life.

    If a private sector company undertook to buy EELVs off the shelf and race NASA then the need for credibility suggests they hire top talent from Boeing and Lockheed. Locate those people who already did work on the EELV architectures for lunar return and hire them.

    And, Admiral Steidle would be a big pick-up for example which would give a program instant credibility with the advertisers.

  17. Habitat Hermit says:

    Redneck:

    Those sound like plausible ideas to me considering the work NASA has done on laser propulsion and as to solely using O2 it seems like a variant of a mass-driver concept (but I haven’t heard of it before so I could be completely off the mark). I think ideas like these and others have a lot of work ahead of them though.

    In my opinion anything at all “on the moon” will be a lot harder than NASA and people in general seem to think. At the same time much less “beating the impossible” than NASA likes to portray it. Most of the “extended stay” plans I’ve seen so far -be it for the moon or for mars, from NASA or others- look too much like suicide missions: not enough flexibility for the unpredicted & not enough knowledge about what we’ll be facing nor known-to-work solutions for many of the things we actually do know about. Perhaps I’m underinformed but I just don’t see the neccessary toolsets being pursued before one actually needs them. Jon and this place is an exception to some of that (but I think more is needed).

    The box is made for breaking but currently I don’t think we know where it is nor its true dimensions ūüôā

  18. murphydyne says:

    There’s a box?

    If redneck gets a rectangular container I want a dodecahedral one.

    Happy Holidays, everyone!

  19. murphydyne says:

    Oh, and regarding Jon’s quote from Man of La Mancha, I really first heard the song during my studies in Paris when I picked up a great Jacques Brel CD. I’ve heard the lyrics in English, but they just don’t have the same resonance for me that the French version has. The lyrics, roughly translated on the fly, are as follows:

    Dream an impossible dream
    Carry the chagrin of those left behind
    Burn with a possible fever
    Depart to where no one goes

    Love until it’s all torn apart
    Love, even too much, even badly
    Try, without strength nor armor,
    To attain the inaccessible star

    That is my quest,
    To follow the star
    Little do my chances weigh on me
    Little does the time concern me

    Or my loss of hope
    And then to fight always
    Without question or repose
    To damn oneself for the gold of one word of love

    I do not know if I will be this hero
    But my heart will be tranquil
    And the villages illumined in blue
    Because an unhappy one

    Burns still, even having burnt all
    Burns still, even too much, even badly
    To attain at tearing himself apart
    To attain the inaccessible star

    And now the far more beautiful and poetic French language version:

    Rêver un impossible rêve
    Porter le chagrin des départs
    Bruler d’une possible fi√ɬ®vre
    Partir ou personne ne part

    Aimer jusqu’√ɬ† la d√ɬ©chirure
    Aimer, même trop, même mal,
    Tenter, sans force et sans armure,
    D’atteindre l’inaccessible √ɬ©toile

    Telle est ma quête,
    Suivre l’√ɬ©toile
    Peu m’importent mes chances
    Peu m’importe le temps

    Ou ma désespérance
    Et puis lutter toujours
    Sans question ni repos
    Se damner
    Pour l’or d’un mot d’amour [that one is a tongue twister]
    Je ne sais si je serais ce héros
    Mais mon coeur serais tranquille
    Et les villes s’√ɬ©clabousserait de bleu
    Parce qu’un malheureux

    Brule encore, m√ɬ™me qu’ayant tout brul√ɬ©
    Brule encore, même trop, meme mal
    Pour atteindre √ɬ† s’en √ɬ©carteler
    Pour atteindre l’inaccessible √ɬ©toile

  20. Jon Goff says:

    Thanks Ken!

    ~Jon

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