Westward Ho?

Other than a busy schedule at work over the past several weeks, and ongoing blogger’s cramp, one of the other big reasons why I haven’t been blogging very much lately is that Tiff and I started reading together again. This is an old tradition of ours that we started back when we were poor newlyweds and couldn’t find a cheaper date than borrowing a book for free from the library, snuggling up, and reading to each other. Anyhow, when we finished the Harry Potter series a few months back, I had decided I needed a break from reading together every night, so I could get caught up on my blogging. I still have another one or two installments to write in my Orbital Access Methodologies series. Seeing as how that hasn’t really been happening, we decided to finish up the last two books in a nine-book historical fiction series we had started back in Santa Clara. To my surprise, reading this series has actually got me thinking more about space development, and so I figured I’d share some of my thoughts.

The series, The Work and The Glory, is a historical fiction adaptation of LDS Church history over the 1828-1847 timeframe, revolving around the lives of a fictional family, the Steeds. While the books do tend to get somewhat preachy at times, and while someone familiar with LDS history might find some of the foreshadowing to be a little weak, the series was overall a good read.

The Mormon Exodus
It was the last two books in the series that got me thinking about the challenges of space settlement. These two books, which we finished a few days ago, cover the Mormon exodus to Utah in 1846-47. In 1845, the deteriorating relationship between the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois and their non-LDS neighbors got bad enough that the Saints agreed to leave the state by the end of the following Spring. Since none of the other states in the Union at the time were willing to accept the Mormon refugees, Brigham Young and other church leaders decided to colonize the Great Basin in the heart of the Rocky Mountains (which at the time were part of Mexican territory). The theory being that the area was pretty much unpopulated, nowhere near as nice as Oregon and California, and therefore they might finally be left alone.

What the story really brought out was how amazingly challenging of an undertaking the exodus was. The goal was to move all 15,000 Saints (many of them destitute) over 1200 miles through unsettled wilderness, and set up civilization in the previously unpopulated mountain valley around the Great Salt Lake. Much like space, the destination was not existing towns or settlements, and relative to other areas being colonized at the time, the area was very forbidding and unfriendly to human habitation.

One of the interesting points I gleaned from the story was the importance of infrastructure in making it possible to move that many people, and Brigham’s use of advanced teams to help prepare the way for the main body of settlers. The original plan in late 1845 and early 1846, was that a set of advanced companies would lead-out, with the goal of reaching the Valley early enough that summer/fall to plant some quick-growing crops. The hope was that they could get there early enough to provide food for the main body of the Saints to survive the winter by the time they would arrive. Also along the way, they’d be blazing the trail: creating fords, digging down steep river banks to allow for easier crossing, building bridges or ferries where necessary. As the nasty weather that Spring in Iowa Territory bogged the Saints down, these advanced parties were instructed to build temporary settlements at several locations including Mount Pisgah, Garden Grove, and eventually Council Bluffs and Winter Quarters (near modern-day Omaha, Nebraska). They fenced in and cleared farm land, planted and cultivated crops, and then moved on, leaving those crops to be harvested by those who were still coming up the trail.

One of the other major lessons I learned was that settlement by large groups is inherently more complicated than settlement by smaller, individual groups. Especially when you need to move not only the rich and well-equipped, but also the penniless, starving, and destitute. In the end, by the end of 1847, only about 10-15% of the Saints had arrived in Utah. Things ended up taking well over twice as long in the end, but created an infrastructure that allowed everyone, no matter how poor to make the trip. Of the ~60,000 people who made the trip before the railroads reached Utah, many of those literally pulled pulled their way to Utah using handcarts. Without the ferries, resupply settlements, trails, rescue parties, the Perpetual Emigration Fund, and other pieces of infrastructure set in place during the initial exodus, many of those who followed would have never made it. Also, the experience gained in setting up the infrastructure for the exodus provided experience that eventually led to over 500 settlements throughout the Rocky Mountains (spanning from Mexico to Canada), playing a pivotal role in the settlement of the Western United States.

Anyhow, there are far more interesting stories (the Mormon Battalion, the Brooklyn Saints, the Donner-Reed Party, etc) that were covered in those two books than I can do justice too. So, if you can stomach the thinly-disguised religious apologetics long enough, I’d highly recommending digging into some of these books.

Important Differences (ie history never really repeats itself even if it rhymes)

While there are many possible similarities between the Mormon settlement of Utah, and the challenge of space settlement in our century, there are also lots of important differences. One of the keys to successfully learning from analogies is recognizing where they break, and understanding how those differences impact your situation. Because, as one of my history professors at BYU pointed out “all analogies fail at some point.” Failing to recognize the differences between your analogy and real life leads to the sort of silly debates all too common in the space community.

Some of these differences make space settlement more challenging, while others might make it somewhat easier than the colonization of Utah that we’ve been discussing.

  • At the time of the exodus, the basic technology for traveling directly to the Great Basin existed. Conestoga wagons, draft animals, firearms, ferries, sailing ships, bridges, etc were all technology that was already in use for commercial and military logistics purposes, as well as playing a big role in the settlement in the MidWest and other places. Much of the technology had been around for centuries or millennia. Not only were the technologies well-understood, but they were commercial available, cost-effective, and off-the-shelf. While there were still improvements being made continuously, as far as settlement was concerned, the commercial state-of-practice for ground transportation at the time was far beyond what the commercial state-of-practice is for space transportation today. A particular case in point is the wagons.
  • Along the trail and at their destination, the Mormon colonists were frequently surrounded by ready sources of food, “fuel”, water, and raw materials for repairs. While it was still possible to starve and die or to run out of water, or to break down in an area where there wasn’t readily available wood (just ask the Donners and Reeds), the general availability of easily extracted in-situ resources was much better for the pioneers than it will be for future space settlers. After all, even the air isn’t free in space. Sure, there are potentially interesting ISRU technologies out there, but they’re nowhere near as mature as cutting wood, shooting buffaloes, carrying water in barrels or canteens, or simply allowing the cattle to graze along the way. Not to mention the fact that you didn’t have to carry all the food for your animals for the whole first half of the Mormon trail…
  • While they weren’t as common as would’ve been nice, there were several human settlements in existence along the way by that point. Places like Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger, and Independence, Missouri. While goods were expensive, they did allow for restocking at some price of hard-to-replace items.
  • Transportation physics were completely different. While I don’t think that the rocket equation makes inexpensive space travel impossible, it really complicates things, and sure doesn’t make it easy. Combine that with the lack of stopping places between here and LEO, and the transportation physics are much less favorable for space settlement.
  • On the side of things that are easier with space settlement, the Moon is a much shorter trip than the trip from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City. The fact that you’re talking about less than a week worth of travel instead of several months makes a huge difference in some of the required provisions and supplies.
  • Modern water and air recycling technologies, when combined with freeze-drying can allow for a much smaller amount of food mass per person per given amount of time–potentially over an order of magnitude less.

The Big picture
Basically when you look at where we are today relative to space settlement, we’re nowhere even close to settling the solar system (not even the moon) as the Saints were to colonizing Utah when they were camped at Sugar Creek, across the river from Nauvoo in the bitter winter of 1846. Our civilization as a whole has never even flown 100 people to orbit in a year, let alone 1000, 3000, or 5000.

Just to give a sense of the scale we’re talking about, here are some rough numbers to think about. Suppose it takes at least 6000-7500lb per person (which is probably a very optimistic bare minimum) to settle and survive off-planet. If those numbers are accurate, then in order to settle 15,000 people in space, even just in LEO, you’re talking somewhere around 45,000 tons of material needing to be lifted. Doing that over a 3-5 year period like the first wave of the Mormon Exodus would require 9-15 thousand tons to be lifted to orbit every year. That’s over 100 Ares-V equivalents per year, and several orders of magnitude higher than what has ever been done before. And that’s assuming that they all stop in LEO! Going to the moon would require something like 6-10 times that mass in LEO in order to do that, and Mars or Venus would likely require even more. That gets you to 90-150 thousand tons per year!

At least right now, if some group of 15,000 people were given a similar ultimatum to what the Saints got in 1845, they’d probably be screwed.

ISRU, Infrastructure, and Access
Now, in this article, I’m not going to go into the rationales that could potentially justify settlement on that scale, or even if it is desirable at this point in time, or how soon it would be desirable. I’m just trying to paint a picture of the kind of things that would need to happen in order to make such an exodus feasible in the first place. Think of this section as a sort of roadmap for stuff that would need to happen between now and when space settlement becomes an even remotely realistic possibility.

With that in minde, once you start to realize how mind-bogglingly large the numbers are when you start talking about serious space settlement, you realize that if such a state even is reachable, it will require attacking the problem from multiple directions. There are three different primary areas of development necessary for enabling space settlement: space access, in-situ resource utilization, and in-space transportation technologies and infrastructure.

Even though lower cost, reliable, and very frequent space access is probably the most important step in the near-term (and also the one that has the clearest near-term potential for ROI and thus commercial feasibility), I want to start by talking about ISRU. ISRU helps enable space settlement by reducing the amount of mass you need to ship to orbit in order for someone to settle somewhere in space. Using the historical analogy I started in this post, colonizing Utah would’ve been far more difficult if all the food, draft animal feed, and construction materials for Salt Lake City had to be hauled from Illinois. In fact, if that were the situation, colonization would’ve been impossible. ISRU basically allows you to hack the space access (ie earth-to-orbit) transportation problem back down to a size that might be workable.

ISRU covers a wide variety of areas including in-situ propellant production, production of life support gasses and liquids, production of construction materials, farming, and eventually extracting and processing industrial raw materials, and manufacturing finished goods. Many people in many venues have talked about this subject (particularly Peter Kokh in his “Moon Miners Manifesto” newsletter), but I want to put my own spin on it. For enabling settlement, there are some ISRU areas that are higher leverage than others (ie where you get more of a payoff for a smaller initial investment). As I see it, the two highest leverage areas for enabling space settlement are in-situ propellant production and in-situ construction and construction materials extraction/processing. Of the mass you need to take to LEO in order to settle on the Moon, Mars, the upper Venutian atmosphere, or even the asteroids, most of it is going to be propellant for the trip. Eventually, as more advanced in-space transportation technologies get fielded, this may change, but if space settlement occurs in the near to medium future, I think the importance of oxygen and hydrogen (and possibly some light hydrocarbons like methane or propane) is major. The next biggest mass is going to be the actual structures that people live in and the other buildings, roads, etc. In fact, some previous studies have pointed out that if you can use ISRU to provide for spacious extra-terrestrial facilities, it can have spillover effects on lots of other things. If your internal space is relatively spacious, for instance, you might be able to have more of the work you need to do be done inside, in a shirtsleeve environment, thus allowing you to more directly leverage existing terrestrial tools and processes, without having to do as much redesign.

When you look at in-situ propellant production, something you realize very quickly is that the less you have to ship propellants around, the better. In other words, the closer you can harvest propellants to the place they will be used, the better. That’s one of the reasons why even though it’s a long-shot, I’m so interested in the whole concept of atmospheric propellant gathering. LEO may be halfway to anywhere, but it’s also halfway from anywhere too. If you can gather LOX in-situ in LEO, and especially if you can do it in large quantities at reasonable cost, that would have a major impact on the cost of beyond-LEO transportation. On the other hand, another thing you realize when you study the problem is that due to the rocket equation, propellant resupply on the final legs of the trip have a disproportionately large impact on the overall propellant requirements. Being able to ship a Lunar, Martian, or Venutian lander “dry” saves a lot more weight to LEO than just that landing propellant. It also save the propellant needed to ship that propellant to the destination in the first place. So, at least to me, the two highest payoff places for propellant ISRU are in LEO (if possible) and in orbit around the final destination (for planetary destinations).

Other forms of ISRU such as farming, large-scale manufacturing, extraction and processing of industrial metals, etc. all have an impact on the situation, but for the most part they are much lower leverage–as far as space settlement itself is concerned. We might still see some of the metals extraction and processing sooner rather than later if for instance, it turns out that Dennis Wingo’s theories about lunar PGMs turns out to be true. But as far as actually getting there and setting up shop, propellant extraction, and extraction of the simplest construction materials is more valuable.

In order to use those ISRU derived propellants, you need more matured in-space transportation technologies and infrastructure. You need propellant depots, you need reusable in-space transportation (as well as reusable landers). You need technologies that make reuse easier such as better aerobraking (which may involve both infrastructure like satellites, and space technology like better reusable TPS, ballutes, etc). You eventually need infrastructure to service and maintain those transportation systems. You’ll probably want lots of prox-ops tugs, and you’ll eventually want rescue services (possibly provided by some of the prox-ops tugs). Some of this infrastructure wants to be in LEO (in whatever inclinations have enough demand and/or cheap supply to make sense–and probably eventually multiple smaller depots in the same inclination), and some of it in the vicinity of the destination (for the moon this could mean elements in L1, L2, and/or low lunar orbit, for Mars this probably implies stuff in Mars orbit, or possibly on Phobos or Deimos themselves, for Venus you’d be talking about a Venutian orbit). This infrastructure will probably grow “organically” as market and governmental demand for those services grow. It’s hard to know in advance what exact mix of propellants, inclinations, number and size of depots, etc will make the most sense–so it will need to be market driven (and yes, government customers are a market too–just a potentially very dysfunctional one that needs to be treated with a lot of care).

The core reality though is that in order to be able to even get to the point where large infrastructure or ISRU development can really take off, the space access (ie earth-to-orbit) transportation situation needs to improve. Even if you’re getting all of your TLI and landing propellants from lunar and upper atmospheric sources, you still need to be able to ship vast amounts of material up from earth, and in order for settlement to be feasible it has to be both significantly cheaper than current launch methods allow, but also the sheer quantity of material that needs to be shipped (even with the rosiest of ISRU scenarios) requires a fundamentally different approach to space transportation. While you may be able to do some of the early infrastructure development with existing launch vehicles (tugs and early “pilot-plant” scale propellant depots come to mind), largescale infrastructure and most ISRU other than atmospheric propellant gathering really need lower cost and more frequent transportation.

As Henry Spencer has put on multiple occasions, developing and debugging ISRU on the moon is going to be an involved process, even if it may be a very worthwhile one. The idea that we’re going to design a working ISRU plant, ship it out to the moon, set it up with a few robots, and then start pumping out LOX right away is ludicrous. We know some things about the moon, and there are some good ideas on how to solve some of the more pressing problems, but the reality is that the lunar environment cannot be simulated 100% here on earth, and there are going to be plenty of snags, complications, and unexpected events. Developing hardware, materials, design processes, chemical processes, etc that can cope with the local environment is going to require trial and error and probably several people “on the ground”. It’s going to take time and lots of work to develop spacesuit materials that can handle the dust, making seals and airlocks that do what we want them to do isn’t likely going to be one of those things we get right the first time. And especially once you get into things like metals extraction and processing, developing construction techniques, etc. you see more of the same challenges. And the reality is that the same thing probably applies for Mars, or Venus, or the Asteroids, or even to living in orbit or in deep space. In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there always is.

Improvements in space access need to not only include cost, but frequency, reliability and sheer volume. When you look at the air transportation industry, you’re probably talking about over 10,000 jets flying every day (some of them multiple times per day) from hundreds or maybe even thousands of airfields. With rocketry today we have something like two dozen flights per year from about one dozen or less active sites. If we’re going to get to the point where we’re shipping hundreds or thousands of people and their goods to orbit there are things that fundamentally need to change. One of the biggest changes isn’t just going to reusability, but going to reusable vehicles that can fly from many locations. While what SpaceX is trying to do is technical reusable (or at least recoverable), they’re never going to be able to operate out of more than three or four launch sites (Kwaj, Vandenburg, Canaveral, and maybe Wallops). Same applies for some of the reusability ideas I’ve seen bandied about by other ELV groups. Sure, for larger goods, those types of reusability are an incremental step in the right direction. But in order to get from where we are now to a transportation system that can fly 1000s of people and their goods to orbit every year, ELVs or recoverable ELVs really stop making sense at some point.

In order to get to the point where we could fly that many people and their stuff to orbit every year, not only do you need “reusable” launch vehicles, but they also need to be capable of high flight rates, capable of operating out of many launch sites (including combination airport/spaceports like Mojave), and safe and reliable enough that they can launch at least some of the time over land. In Part I of my Orbital Access Methodologies series, I discussed one such potential approach, in the next part(s) I’ll be discussing a few more.

Getting to a point as a civilization that we’re truly ready to start spreading out throughout the solar system is going to be a difficult process. We’re nowhere even close to where we need to be, and most of the options being investigated by national governments are pretty much orthogonal to where we need to go if we want to see our civilization become a truly spacefaring one. Getting to there from here will require work on radically improving earth-to-orbit space access, developing in-space transportation technologies and infrastructure, and learning how to tap the resources of the upper atmosphere, the Moon, and other planetary and asteroidal bodies. There is useful work that can be done now on all three of these areas, but we’ve got a long way to go, and the engineering challenges are very interconnected. Probably the biggest challenge of all is going to be finding a way to craft solid and profitable business cases along the way to fielding these technologies.

Westward Ho? We’ll see, but we probably have an even rockier road between us and our destination than the Mormon pioneers did in the spring of 1846.

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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 the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. 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 the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. 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.
This entry was posted in Commercial Space, Lunar Commerce, Space Development, Space Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Westward Ho?

  1. redneck says:

    Your previous post mentioned passing 200,000 hits. It is waiting for posts like this that keep people hitting your site even during blogger block times. It is worth it to me to check often even during those slow times. Quality is better than quantity.

    A BYU student is interning as project manager for one of my contractors. Didn’t know you. Did his two years in Japan.

  2. Jon Goff says:

    Thanks for the kind words! The biggest challenge these days is just having enough mental energy left after a long day at work, and then a couple hours with getting the house cleaned up and the boys to bed.

    As for the BYU student, what was he majoring in? It’s been four years now since I was taking any classes there, and next year will be the 10th anniversary of me getting my BS degree.


  3. Monte Davis says:

    When Freeman Dyson was researching terrestrial colonization costs in the 1970s, IIRC he got some of his best quantitative data from Mormon sources. As he said of Big Space Projects in my OMNI interview, until the “grubstake” gets down into the range of a single household’s savings, “it’s not really interesting to me…”

  4. Monte Davis says:

    Every once in a while it’s healthy to restate the cheery “LEO is halfway to anywhere” as the gloomy “It eats up half your delta-V just to get to the first ‘ledge’ 200 miles up.” They’re both true.

    Dawn never comes until after the darkest hour, there’s a dark cloud inside every silver lining, etc.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Jon –

    Do you still have that draft novel I sent you?

    If the Mayflower Pilgrims aimed to build a “city on a hill” at Plymouth Rock wouldn’t a settlement on Mars be a city built on an even higher hill?

    Bill White

  6. Anonymous says:

    The VoorTrek, other settlements in the American west, the early settlement of the less developed parts of the Americas, and the initial settlement of the Pacific islands would also be useful analogies. As with the Mormon settlement, they are probably as useful for their dissimilarities to space expansion as for their similarities. I’d reckon that the Pacific islands settlement would be the most similar but we don’t have a lot of information on that.

    At this early stage in spaceflight, we probably also have a lot to learn from Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Zubrin made effective use of that analogy in his Mars Direct proposals.

    -Adam Greenwood, http://www.timesandseasons.org

  7. gravityloss says:

    Excellent post, Jon. A good antidote for those inane rose-colored analogies…

  8. Jon Goff says:

    I agree, the goal of getting the cost of off-planet emigration down in the range where normal families or singles could afford it is key to making space settlement realistically feasible. So long as it still costs something like $500M-1B+ per person to emigrate, it’ll never be anything more than a couple of government employees. Even commercial ventures on the Moon and elsewhere really need the transportation costs to get down low enough that they can afford to experiment and try new things out.

    I’m not sure where the magic number is for emigration, but it’s probably in the $1-2M range for a family of 3-4. That sets a pretty low maximum earth to orbit transportation cost, and also requires getting the total launched mass per family as low as possible.

    Might be possible, but we have our work set out for us.


  9. Kirk Sorensen says:

    Brother Jon, when the prophet tells us that the Lord wants us to go and colonize the Moon, then we’ll see some serious space settlement take place! You do tanks and I’ll do trajectories…

    (I can feel my pioneer blood stirring in my veins…)


  10. redneck says:

    As for the BYU student, what was he majoring in? It’s been four years now since I was taking any classes there, and next year will be the 10th anniversary of me getting my BS degree.
    Construction management. He has one more semester to his BS degree. Ben Wade from SLC.

    Students need to be carefull on interning jobs. He was shuffling blueprints and restapling when I met him a month ago. Then his boss got fired and he became the project manager. At least inheriting a mess will give experience.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Any good links on upper atmosphere oxygen gathering? A quick Google didn’t return much other than a discussion string at Space.com

    The idea intrigues me, but I’m in the skeptical column at this point.

    Tom Hill
    tom – at – spacewhatnow.com

  12. Robert Horning says:

    I realize that analogies can go to far, but there are some other interesting aspects about settlement of Utah that ought to be considered.

    For the most part, Utah can be thought of as a bunch of smallish habitable islands surrounded by a largely inhospitable sea of mountains. Indeed, most of the counties in Utah are quite clearly defined by mountain ridges separating one major settlement area from another. All told, the actual habitable area of Utah is considerably less than the official quotes in terms of the number of square miles that Utah occupies. If you took out these more or less hard to access areas, Utah would be more comparable to New Jersey or even Hawaii in terms of usable land area. It is for this reason that Utah is now considered one of the most urban states in the USA, particularly if you look at the Wasatch front counties, and seeing developments like commuter rail and light rail projects.

    One of the genuine innovations that Brigham Young and the other 1840’s Mormons came up with was the handcart for mass migration over long distances. What is missing in most discussions about this device is that it wasn’t an isolated item with a lone family choosing to take on the American wilderness all by themselves pulling their few possessions in a cart, but that a whole infrastructure was set up for helping the handcart pioneers get across the western wilderness. Constoga wagons, way stations, experienced guides, and concurrent conventional pioneer travel parties were all a part of the infrastructure.

    Also interesting with the handcarts was a substantial savings per family. The cost in 1840’s dollars to travel west (keep in mind you earned about 1 dollar per day for common labor back then, or worth about 50x the equivalent today) was about $2000-$5000 for the trip. Translated to today’s figures (roughly) that is about $100k-$1m for a family to make the trip. Yes, it was mainly the wealthy that did go west and not the poor starving masses that more or less stayed in the eastern cities in America. The handcart dropped this price down to about $200-$500 for a family to make the trip, with a real discount package coming in at about $100 (all 1840’s figures). This was an amount that an ordinary working family could earn in about a year of saving money to make the trip.

    I can only hope that something similar in terms of travel into space could be made for more ordinary people to “get up there”. How that will happen will be anybody’s guess… if it can be done at all. But it will be interesting to see what could happen.

  13. Jon Goff says:

    Heh. While I guess it isn’t 100% impossible that the prophet would say something like that, I think it’s fair to say that it’s highly improbable.


  14. Jon Goff says:

    Any good links on upper atmosphere oxygen gathering? A quick Google didn’t return much other than a discussion string at Space.com

    I have a couple of blog posts about it, and you could also google the term PROFAC somewhere else. There’s a couple of possible approaches, but it remains to be seen if the technological challenges can be overcome. The primary challenge is that atoms hitting a surface in space like that don’t just reflect off the way you think they would–they tend to stick and then reemit with a velocity related to the temperature of the surface. That makes it hard to do proper concentration. I’ve got some ideas, and maybe should blog some more about it, but to me the fundamental question is, can you get it to work well enough that it’s worth the effort?

    I really don’t know for sure, but it’s high enough payoff, that I think at least some additional work should be put on the topic until it’s either proven out, or until there is sufficient evidence that it wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t be worthwhile.


  15. Jon Goff says:

    Thanks for the data, that info on the cost of traveling West was just what I was looking for. Goes right along with what Monte was saying. A big part of the reason why colonization was possible was because it could be self-funded by reasonably well-to-do individuals. Nowadays that would likely be in the $1-5M range for upper middle class, but as you also pointed out, it was the handcarts getting it to the point where your average family could pay for the trip off or a year or two worth of work, where things really took off.

    Thanks for injecting some more data!

  16. False Data says:

    The primary challenge is that atoms hitting a surface in space like that don’t just reflect off the way you think they would–they tend to stick and then reemit with a velocity related to the temperature of the surface. That makes it hard to do proper concentration.

    If you’re operating at an altitude where the atoms are ionized, perhaps magnetic fields instead of a physical scoop would be a good solution. And even if you’re not, it might make sense to pump in the energy to ionize them. I haven’t run the numbers, but it seems like magnetic fields would let you separate different atoms, on principles similar to the way a mass spec works, and possibly concentrate the ions enough that if you spray them with electrons to deionize, they’ll behave more like a conventional gas.

  17. Ivan Vuletich says:

    Excellent post, a couple of thoughts…

    Although LEO might only be half way to anywhere, the first half is far harder than the second, as at LEO low thrust/high Isp propulsion becomes possible, especially for freight. Perhaps future emigrants won’t haul all of their gear to their destination, but will instead send them on ahead maybe years in advance.

    On that track perhaps relatively small amounts of xenon or argon will be a better bet for propellant depots rather than bulk hydrogen & oxygen.

    As to the cost, does anyone have any figures on the cost of a small house/farm in the Eastern US in the 1840’s? The cost for a family sounds like it was the equivalent of selling everything you had and probably also going into debt in order to make the trip.

    Ivan Vuletich

  18. Jon Goff says:

    Whether electric propulsion yields cheaper cargo transportation than liquids at a time depends strongly on what the cost of the different propellants are in orbit, and what the overall flight rate is (oh, and on the characteristics of the transportation leg you’re looking at). For cislunar apps, the travel time of the solar electric system takes so long, and the development and per unit cost are high enough, that I just don’t really see it making much sense if the cost to orbit comes down anywhere near far enough to justify cislunar travel. As for the other markets such as Mars, Venus, or the asteroids….better question. I’ll have to blog about that at a future date.

    As for the costs of houses at that time, the cost of emigration was probably high enough that yeah, you were looking at selling off a reasonable sized estate (including some farmland) in order to make the trip. I kind of doubt that debt financing would be available for most people making the trip though. You either sold your property for enough to make the trip, or you found a way to make-due with less.


  19. coltakashi says:

    The emigration process developed from oxen-drawn wagons to handcarts pulled by people to an even more economical method, the “down and back” wagon trains that left from Utah and went to Omaha, Nebraska, to pick up people who had arrived there by train and ocean ships and river boats. This continued until the railroad was finished, which drastically speeded up the trip and cut down on many of the travel costs, which were simply sustaining life for a 3 month journey. So would space colonists be able to develop a space transport system that could go back to earth and pick up people from LEO or even the surface through some kind of space elevator? One proposal for an Earth to Mars shuttle would use lasers to boost and decelerate vessels, giving a less than two week transit time.

    On making the analogy, obviously most of the trail to Utah was part of the Oregon Trail which was in use from the 1830s. Additionally, the roadway from the Oregon Trail to Salt Lake was carved out of Emigration Canyon by the Donner Party in 1846, which was headed to California before the War with Mexico. Some of the pioneering was done by the Mormon Battalion, a military expedition that marched through New Mexico to Arizona and San Diego, then from Sacramento to Salt Lake, blazing a trail that was used by gold hunters who helped finance the Mormon colonization by buying supplies and animals from the Mormon settlements, as well as a road for access for shipment of goods by ship to San Francisco and then to Utah. So it’s almost as if the Asteroid Belt houses a wormhole from Earth that can serve as an alternate starting point for travel to Mars. and it raises the question whether there would be a commercial, industrial activity analogous to gold mining that could help pay the cost of colonization along the route in between.

    Finally, all of the lands that were settled by the Mormons already had Indian occupants, though they were not necessarily displaced by the Mormon colonists. Presumably the Utes, Shoshone and other tribes were decimated by smallpox and other European disease just like the other tribes, taking them to as little as 10% of their former population. Their ancestors had cleared the land of megafauna like the mammoths and mastodons and smilodons (sabre-tooth tigers) and large browsers like Unintatherium. Shooting buffalo was much easier pickings than taking on beasts bigger than an elephant. Indians had identified edible plants and animals (such as Columbia River salmon) and had knowledge of the topography of the West that saved the European colonists a lot of trouble in locating resources and finding trails. There seems to be nothing like the Indians available to space colonists within the solar system.

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