Microgravity Musings

Howdy all, guest blogger Ken here.

I’ve promised a couple posts that have been on the back burner. One is on regolith, a complex topic that needs more exposure, but unfortunately one of the main resources I was going to use, NASA’s ‘Lunar e-Library’ uses some kind of proprietary Acrobat interface for searching the pdfs that keeps freezing up my computer, making progress frustrating and slow (and easy to put aside as other priorities come along). I was however impressed with the appendix in “The Moon” which dealt with regolith simulants, and how the different types are useful for specific kinds of research. One thing I did note in an old engineering study from the ’80s was a blithe dismissal of iron in regolith, and its potential contribution to mitigation strategies. Then you look at the number of studies that source from the original one, and it’s easy to see how misinformation can spread. I say misinformation because thanks to the work of Dr. Taylor at UTenn we now know just how useful can be that fine misting of free iron particles on all of the regolith particles. And so we’re having to revisit a lot of assumptions and dearly held beliefs. Like regolith being a ‘show-stopper’ for Lunar development.

Another post I’ve promised is one on microgravity science, and why it is not a failure as a research methodology. The basic thesis here is that the reason microgravity science hasn’t been able to fulfill its promise is because it hasn’t had the opportunity to fulfill its promise. It’s pretty darn tough for a scientist to get good results when they can only get into the lab once every six months (at best) and in addition to doing all of the maintenance on the lab trying to run your experiment as well. In my view it is a fundamentally flawed approach, although one that has tried very, very hard to succeed. I don’t consider my analysis to be comprehensive, but y’all aren’t paying me enough to be comprehensive. I’ve got a fair amount of stuff in the Lunar Library, and I have been following this particular topic a bit since I identified it years ago as one of the key business opportunities. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources to follow all of the flown experiments back to their sources and get first-hand accounts of the results, but I did put together enough data to get a sense of what was going on.

The whole issue is of course transport to orbit. If you can’t get to the lab frequently and regularly, it’s difficult to make progress in your research. This is one way in which Bigelow balloons may have a competitive advantage. By adopting a strategy of merely providing orbital space, Mr. Bigelow allows the consumer to determine what goes on at the orbital facility. If someone wants to do microgravity science, they can lease the space, move in some equipment and lab benches, and send their researchers to orbit to run and re-run experiments in the search for better hypotheses.

I’ve asked Mr. Bigelow about whether his facilities would be able to interface with ISPRs, or International Standard Payload Racks, which are the plug-n-play equipment modules for the ISS, but never got a clear answer. These were designed to accomodate all of the old shuttle mid-deck locker experiment kits and Spacelab drawer racks used in the cargo bay. From a business perspective, this means that the ISPRs are able to accomodate legacy hardware. If the Nautilus and other balloons can fit them, that means that researchers will be able to tap a toolkit that dates back to the 1980s.

One business idea I considered while at ISU for grad school was to quietly buy up old mid-deck locker racks from the research institutions that had flown them, and probably had them in a closet somewhere. These would be cleaned up and then made available for lease to researchers who want to do experiments in microgravity. The idea being that the researchers wouldn’t have to go through the misery of designing and building fully-automated push-button black boxes to run their experiments, they could use equipment that someone else had already made. Plus, since the equipment had flown previously on the Shuttle it was already ‘space-proven’, making for an easier vetting process for future flights.

Bwaa-hahahahaha! Reality quickly squished that idea quick, like a pathetic insect beneath an iron boot-heel. Not that the idea is without merit. Rather, the same old problem creeps up – access to space regularly and frequently. Though in this case not just in the case of physical access, but also procedural. So long as NASA has control of access to the ISS for the U.S., things will be done NASA’s way (like no more than 12 dockings with the ISS per year). That means a significant outlay of capital and the underwriting of salaries for long periods of time in return for infrequent and not necessarily usable the first time around results.

Looking back at the historical record, the first thing I did was pull out the good ole ‘1981-1999 Space Shuttle Mission Chronology’ (pdf), which is a terrific reference that KSC published back in 2000. It covers basic almanac-style information about each mission, including noting most of the microgravity experiments run on each trip. Mashing through the incomplete data, what becomes evident is that while there were many suites of equipment that flew fairly often, there was a lot of competition for the limited access to the microgravity environment from different interests. Experiments that might have returned results needing follow-up would find that they had a long line of experiments ahead of them before they could refly, if at all, because if a later experiment proved more ‘interesting’ science-wise, it would get bumped up in the line.

The high level of interest in the new realm of microgravity made possible by the STS begining in 1982 can be seen in the conference proceedings of the ‘Second Symposium on Space Industrialization’, compiled together with ‘Microgravity Science and Applications Program Tasks’ into the book “Space Industrialization Opportunities” edited by Jernigan & Pentecost in 1984. It weighs in at 601 pages of papers on results to date and abstracts on future research opportunities. The book is a thorough overview of space business, including things like transport and remote sensing benefits. My favorite part, though, is the appendix on specific microgravity science applications, which gets into the nuts and bolts of specific research avenues in the space environment. Some are the traditional crystal-growth experiments, but also more unusual things like Sol-Gel glasses. If you have doubts about the ‘potential’ of microgravity science for the creation of new high-technology products, then you need to take a read through this relatively hard to find book.

Given the potential identified in the early 1980s, given that it is now the late in the first decade of the next century, what happened? The usual suspects: politics and access to space. The shuttle was settling into a groove, and companies like 3M were doing experiments in orbit. Then Challenger hit and the nation was stunned into numbness. Any space ambitions of GenX (who would be inheriting the operation of the Space Shuttle and implementing a space station as a platform for the next steps as their generational challenge) were vaporized in that fireball in the skies over the Atlantic. To this day I cannot watch a video of the event or even ponder it without choking up. I think I knew on that day that the Shuttle was not the long-term answer, though I didn’t know what might be. (General guess at this point: near-term, EELVs, intermediate term, RLVs, permanent, space elevator, but let’s practice on the Moon first) Space did not again cross my path until 1999. Odd, given that ‘Space: 1999’ was what I grew up with instead of ‘Star Trek’.

After Challenger, access to orbit essentially shut down for the U.S. The experiment backlog grew longer, and companies were having a harder and harder time justifying the salaries of microgravity science staff that had nothing to do. Some recognized early on that longer duration access to micro-g was needed to really get good science results. Space Industries was formed in 1982, and proposed an Industrial Space Facility to supplement the Shuttle. It would not be crewed, but rather crew-tended. Experiments would run unperturbed between shuttle visits, giving the STS a near-term destination, and a place to run science experiments for a longer duration than a 1 to 2 week shuttle flight.

ISF tried to be a commercial venture, but by the late 80s and in the wake of Challenger money was starting to dry up. Again, it’s hard to commit capital to an endeavor to which you don’t have good transport. ISF tried to get support from NASA as an anchor tenant, which set off the folks in Congress who saw it as a grab for Federal money. Besides, the U.S. would soon have the Space Station Freedom in orbit, so why would NASA need the ISF? Private industry could sure use an ISF, but without reliable crewed traffic to the station it is a hard sell, and the ISF ended up going nowhere.

By the early 1990s, even the hardest-core corporate micro-g efforts had dropped out, especially in light of the increasing devotion of NASA to their own space-station efforts. Many of the NASA researchers moved out into academia and pursued their studies through that venue. By the late 1990s, NASA was again hitting a groove, and there were more and more regular flights of equipment. Micro-g science was starting to become interesting again, and with the promise of a space station for longer-duration research the drumbeat started up for commercial access to space. In this case with NASA serving as the space-experienced chaperone for private efforts. Spin-offs were oft cited as a motivation for private capital to come back to the table, but spin-offs are something that is often confused as an end in and of itself, rather than as a contributor to the pool of knowledge that allows us to make better products.

By studying how materials behave in microgravity, we are learning things like how atoms arrange themselves as the form changes from liquid to solid. I had a good friend from the Space Generation Forum who was doing research on data on solidification-front changes in metals in microgravity,and who told me about some of the difficulties they were having interpreting the work while racing to beat another team to publication. By understanding how these things happen in the effective ‘absence’ of gravity, and comparing the results with what we know from studies on the same thing in our 1G environment, then we can learn how to do things better on Earth (and in space).

The problem is NOT that microgravity science, and eventual production, does not hold any promise. The problem is fundamentally that we can’t get our researchers into the environment in which they need to work on a frequent and regular basis. The Shuttle is not the answer, but it is the only one we have right now. I don’t think that the ISS, serviced by us exclusively with the shuttle, is being applied in the best way right now, but again, not because it is a bad tool, but rather that the bureaucratic infrastructure that has ossified around it makes access as problematic as not having transport.

The two players who are most obviously positioning themselves for an early start in future efforts are Bigelow and SpaceHab (SPAB). Bigelow is smart enough to not create space hotels, but rather leases available pressurized space on orbit. It can be used as a hotel for space tourists, but it can also be used as orbital research space if you put the right equipment in, and one company that has a pretty good amount of experience in the equipment side of things is SpaceHab. They were doing pretty well until Columbia took out their SpaceHab module, a pretty severe body blow for the company. They came back fighting, and have now positioned themselves as the company to contact for getting micro-g science stuff to orbit, and their COTS application is again heavy on their equipment experience. Like any good American I love the scrappy underdog story of SpaceHab against the goliaths of Boeing and LockMart, but unfortunately my work as an investment banker precludes me from investing in companies that I research for my job, because more likely than not I have non-public information (I do in the case of SpaceHab), and even the semblance of impropriety is not a good thing for an old-school banker. I also wish I could invest in Bigelow Aerospace, but I personally don’t wield sufficient capital to do so, and the IPO is I’m sure a ways away.

Browsing around the web this weekend, I did see an allusion at one of the blogs (Rockets & Such) to Boeing being an entrant in the COTS competition. Space.com revived the story of LockMart working with Bigelow on potentially providing transport to Bigelow’s facilities in orbit. This is an interesting development, in part because I think to some extent the big corps like Boeing and LockMart really do want to see human spaceflight as a standalone industry in the way that satellites and launchers are. I’m sure Boeing would love to sell CEVs to rich people all over the (free) world the way they sell aircraft to rich people. From a transport perspective is there much difference in selling transport between points A and B if the locations are both on Earth or if one of the locations is in orbit? Sure the physics are all screwy and really not comparable, but that was also largely true in the substitution of aircraft for trains as a means of going from point A to B. So hopefully over the last couple of years since the CE&R project the corporate community has come to realize that they have all of the right pieces, they just need to be put together in the right way, and the CE&R was a big step in that direction, as you kept seeing the same design elements in multiple presentations, such as an EML-1 staging point.

The kids don’t wanna do their daddy’s space program all over again. It doesn’t have to be that way,and more and more people are beginning to realize it. There are different ways of approaching the problems, and if you change your frame of reference to look at the problem in a new way then you can see new solutions. Fuel depots don’t make sense if you’re throwing everything away each time. For the generations raised on Reduce/Reuse/Recycle the idea of throwaway missions to the Moon is noxious. What is interesting to them is one in which the pieces get reused and we’re not throwing expensive tools into the void anymore. That means fuel depots and L1 stations and spacecraft that don’t necessarily come back to Earth after launch. It means providing the tools like freeflyer platforms for microgravity science so that the U.S. can maintain its edge in providing the highest technology materials for both Earth and space applications. It means tapping directly the source of all of our energy [except for nuclear and geothermal] and beaming it down to Earth. Given that you can grow crops and graze cattle [most likely without ill affect] underneath the rectennas, you don’t necessarily have to sole-source acreage like you do for traditional terrestrial Solar power. I can easily see skyscrapers (and brownstones) in NYC installing rectennas on their roofs to supplement the grid, especially in winter.

Kids don’t want to see a rehash of what their parents did 40 years ago. They want the promise of a future of hard work that will lay the groundwork for things like energy from the Sun and high technology goods and services that build a stronger nation. That’s a future that promises economic competitiveness and the kind of groundbreaking things that made America great and a nation worthy of the respect it held/holds in the eyes of the world. That’s not what the kids’re being sold, and they’re not buying, surprise, surprise. Of course, the analyst in me points out that as taxpaying and voting blocs the GenXers and Millenials are pretty insignificant, which means that your target audience is in fact the Baby Boomers and their parents the Greatest Generation, who are significant taxpayers and voters. Who also happen to be living longer thanks to the advanced medical capabilities we’ve developed in the biological sciences. If we get our acts together some Baby Boomers will get to retire to the Moon, for an extra decade or two thanks to the lesser stress on the heart (and as a colleague pointed out, may provide the benefit of increased blood flow to the brain, an interesting concept).

Speaking of science, I mentioned last time around that I had submitted an abstract to the Lunar (and Planetary) Science Conference to talk about the Lunar Library, but that I wasn’t holding my breath. With good reason because the rejection letter came today. They were nice enough to address me as Dr., even though I don’t plan for accreditation at that level until my 50s. I’m figuring on a law degree during my 40s, and anyway no one even offers a doctorate in my field of interest, which is Lunar Studies. Anyway, the specific reason cited was that “The abstract focuses on a specific product instead of scientific data and is not suitable for presentation at our conference.” It does have the feel of a somewhat personalized letter, and was hand-signed, so I am appreciative of that fact. When I got the three rejection letters for the OSF Policy Analyst position I had applied for at NASA you could tell they were all machine generated and autopenned.

Ah, ever the search for credibility. Is the Lunar Library in fact a product? I would argue that service is a truer word for what is being provided, that being a comprehensive overview of available books and other resources with a Moon focus, but also covering asteroids and the High Frontier. Nah, they’re probably right, it’s likely not of interest to the Lunar and Planetary Science community.

Sometimes I wish I could do a poster, especially since I was invited to do soat the ISU Symposium, but that’s a messy and time intensive process (I know, a poster session for the GSFC researchers is one of the exercises the NASA Academy RAs go through as part of the program), made more difficult by the fact that it is web organized, not poster organized. All of the non-fiction reviews are housed in the Book Review section of OotC, not the Lunar Library, but they are cross-linked. The Lunar Sci-fi reviews are an 11 page long php bulletin board thread over in the forums (because I don’t consider them worthy of the main section, only the non-fiction is). How do you link through to the on-line text from a poster? How do you demonstrate that by filing them chronologically you can scroll through and see what kinds of items were being produced when? The ease with which one can decide that they only want to see reference materials from a particular time frame?

That’s the power of the blog format. I can arrange the Library thematically, and chronologically, and the most recent stuff shows up at the top. I can link to the publisher’s website, on-line text, reviews at other websites, interviews with the authors at The Space Show, make commentary, and so on. The downside is of course that it is all hand-crafted, which takes time, and the fact that I have to have a physical copy for it to get a ‘filecard’, which means a capital investment.

Of course, if you go with my usual being way ahead of everyone else, often years ahead, then it probably won’t be until about 2011 that anything ever comes of the Lunar Library, when NASA and the established space community finally has their “Oh, Crap!” moment and realizes that it would probably be a good idea to have a cadre of younger scientists and technicians (and my job: management flunkie) who actually know a fair amount about the Moon. GenXers and Millenials, because the Baby Boomers can’t expect to be the ones to actually mount the Lunar expeditions, unless they are envisioning their own version of Apollo, in which case I would really, seriously need to re-think my whole position on the future of space in this nation.

Because that’s what ESAS is turning out to be, with disposable rocket parts and everything. If we are only going to be repeating Apollo, then I’m ready to throw in the towel. I think that would be a phenomenal abuse of taxpayer funds, and the Libertarian in me is dead-set against it.

Perhaps it’s because I can see the might have been, or may yet be (it’s hard to tell sometimes), and I know there’s a different approach. One that focuses on the emplacement of enabling infrastructure with the costs burdened amongst the users. Setting up a fuel depot for a NASA mission to the Moon is a phenomenally stupid idea. Setting up a fuel depot to be used by NASA, American industry, the DoD, and international customers, is a brilliant idea.

Luckily, the kids seem to be getting it. I was surprised to find a lively discussion of EML-1 as a staging point over at the Space.com Uplink. While at an NSS-NT field trip to the UTA Planetarium, we were talking about the projection capabilities of their new digital system. I asked if they would be able to map out the Lagrange points, and a young Civil Air Patrol cadet (actually, the volunteer that got to sleep with Pixel during the ISDC) piped up ‘Yeah, Lagrange points!’. Such things were apparently beyond the ken of the classically-trained planetarium director, but I’m pretty sure it could be done if I gave him the equations.

Actually, that’s an interesting idea. A digital planetarium show on cislunar space that laid out the terrain from a gravipotential standpoint, and showed the kinds of stuff you would put at all of the different locations between here and the Moon. Show the little spaceships shuttling between EML1 and the different LEO inclinations, to GEO and back, and landing all over the Moon. Call it “TomorrowMoon” Hmmmm. I wonder how much money there is in licensing planetarium shows…

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3 Responses to Microgravity Musings

  1. Jon Goff says:

    Excellent post Ken! Thanks for fleshing out the idea I was trying to bring up in my last post (about the need for frequent access to make microgravity research work).

    Also your comments about a reusable, depot-based lunar architecture is fairly timely. I’ve been noodling doing just such a post for a while. Alas, I really need to get those TSTO articles out of the way first….

    Sigh…too much to write about, too little time.


  2. Anonymous says:

    In addition to frequent access to the (a) space station from Earth, I wonder if a smaller but still significant part of the problem isn’t frequent access to Earth from the space station. For example, see page 20 of this old Centennial Challenges slide show – the idea was a “micro-reentry vehicle” that could return space station samples routinely.


  3. Jon Goff says:

    Yeah, you need frequent transport both ways. Any serious microgravity research program is going to have both earthside and spaceside segments, and the quicker, easier, and more seamlessly you can send things back and forth between those two segments the better. Ideally, with something like an RLV that had downmass capabilities, you could see weekly opportunities to and from a given station (maybe eventually daily flights) instead of the current status quo.

    Has a lot in common with batch theory from manufacturing engineering actually. Once the stuff has been processed, you’d prefer to minimize the size of your move batch as much as possible.


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