Transitions

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.Β  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.Β  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.Β  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.
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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88 Responses to Transitions

  1. David says:

    Starting out a new enterprise is a lot of work which can be very rewarding. Couple it with the family events makes it doubly so. I am personally excited where your direction and interests will go. If the name and what limited information on the web site suggests then I am looking forward to your business growing. If my imagination and thoughts are right I think it is an area that has a lot of potential.

    Good luck (and try to keep us (if you can) informed).

  2. Axel says:

    Jon, I admire and envy your courage and energy. What does it take to build a start up in the US? Hope your blog will tell us more. Good luck and success with your proposals.

  3. Thanks guys. I’ll probably have a blog setup at some point on the ASM site, but until then, I’ll probably give out details here as time permits. It’s been a mix of fun and minutia so far. Doing some contracting work to stay afloat while I pull together the details and the team.

    ~Jon

  4. A_M_Swallow says:

    Good luck.

  5. Eric Collins says:

    Congrats, and good luck with the new startup.

  6. David says:

    Do not forget to add the link to your new company web site under the alt.space companies section. Yes I can here you – another thing to do and not enough time….. :-).

  7. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Eric, AM, — Thanks!
    David — Good suggestion. Done.

  8. Best of luck with the new company, looking forward to yet another interesting space company!

  9. Alex T. says:

    Hmm. “Building sustainable space infrastructure through low-cost space machines.” I’m just guessing, does this have anything to do with ISRU or auxons? Because, there really needs to be a company that does that. Seriously, a company that builds a system that can reproduce itself and produce useful things in space using resources that exist out there… That’s the sort of company that the NewSpace effort really needs in order to develop space resources.

    …just putting that out there.

  10. Alex, I’ve been reading the literature a lot recently.. I personally love all the analysis that has gone into why practical manufacturing of solar cells on the Moon is unworkable – it seems to really piss off the advocates. There’s probably as much literature on both sides of the argument, and virtually no actual experimental evidence either way.

    Now, I find it interesting that you mentioned auxons.. that’s a term coined by terrestrial investigators who at least did some experimentation (although not nearly enough).

  11. Pete says:

    Indeed best of luck! I am sure whatever you have in mind (I suspect something at the payload end of things), will be significant and influential in helping New Space.

  12. Major Tom says:

    Best luck and wishes, Mr. Goff. The industry and sector need more like you.

  13. Pingback: Jon Goff’s Move « Gravity Loss

  14. A_M_Swallow says:

    If solar cells cannot be manufactured in space then Stirling engines can be used to convert sun light into motion to produce electricity. An inert gas, such as CO2 or Argon, is needed.

  15. Nathan says:

    If I had to guess (and I don’t, but what the heck), I’d guess that the only thing which could tempt Jon away from flying rockets would be something to do with propellent depots. This seems like it would be a hard thing for a small start-up to pull off, unless it’s looking at selling propellant-transfer subsystems / IP to the bigger ventures (Boeing, SpaceX, etc.), which I imagine will be becoming very interested in depots in a couple years’ time…?

    What say you, Mr. Goff? Anywhere near the mark?

  16. redneck says:

    Is yuu hiring. Ah allus wanted to bee a rokit sceintest, specully if your garag has a indoor outhouse. πŸ™‚ Good luck.

  17. Pete says:

    If solar cells cannot be manufactured in space then Stirling engines can be used to convert sun light into motion to produce electricity. An inert gas, such as CO2 or Argon, is needed.

    An aggressive solar thermal design might reach 1kW/kg – cold end heat rejection is problematic. There was a reference in an SPS paper from some time back to the possibility of ~5.7kW/kg thin film solar (I can not currently find a reference).

    I strongly doubt that insitu solar power is on the critical path just yet. I am not sure what Jon has in mind but a modular miniature depot with tugs for servicing small satellites and robotic missions that could operate from a Masten or XCOR derived micro launcher system would be but one possible interesting business model. Assuming various suborbital payloads and business models do not come first.

  18. Patrick says:

    Denver? Colorado Springs? ???

  19. A_M_Swallow says:

    An aggressive solar thermal design might reach 1kW/kg – cold end heat rejection is problematic. There was a reference in an SPS paper from some time back to the possibility of ~5.7kW/kg thin film solar (I can not currently find a reference).

    The kW/kg figure is only important if the solar thermal power source is transported or flown. A static ISRU electric supply can be very heavy – simplicity of manufacture and reliability are more important.

  20. Ed Minchau says:

    “Building sustainable space infrastructure through low-cost space machines.”

    That’s pretty broad. I suppose it has to be at this stage of the business.

    If one ignores the problem of access to orbit (since several companies with much more funding are already working on it), it’s pretty easy to see that there are lots of markets, completely untapped. ISRU is one, but I can think of several others off the top of my head, ranging from Canfield joint-mounted engines and solar panels to “black box” space-rated electronics modules to common satellite chassis to couplings for propellant transfer… the sky is no limit.

  21. Pete says:

    The kW/kg figure is only important if the solar thermal power source is transported or flown. A static ISRU electric supply can be very heavy – simplicity of manufacture and reliability are more important.

    This would require being able to make everything from thin films to labor intensive structures, electric generators and ball bearings – with such off planet manufacturing capability one would likely already be self sufficient. This is a leap way way too far just yet.

    It is going to take many years to develop in space manufacturing capability (perhaps what the ISS should really have been doing), setting up that development center would seem a far more realistic first objective to me. First uses of insitu resources should probably be propellant, shielding, and then maybe structure (simple to make massive habitat pressure shells, etc.).

    If we assume ~$100/kg launch costs – and significant off planet activity probably would justify the development of such low launch costs, then the economics look a little different. Insitu resources should likely initially compete on goods dominated by raw material costs (solar cells?), not high labor manufactured goods like complicated solar thermal power systems.

  22. Pete says:

    If one ignores the problem of access to orbit (since several companies with much more funding are already working on it), it’s pretty easy to see that there are lots of markets, completely untapped.

    Indeed, New Space launch vehicles need New Space payloads – there should be some huge opportunities here. I will be very interested to see where Jon takes this – he has been thinking very intently on this problem for a long time so I am hoping for great things. πŸ™‚

  23. Ed, and others,
    I should mention that that phrase on the website is just a placeholder we put up about a month ago when I registered the site. I’ll hopefully be able to give more details tomorrow when I get back into things (I try to avoid doing work stuff on Sundays).

    ~Jon

  24. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Thanks guys for the kind words!

    Patrick, we’re looking at the Louisville, CO area (but more on that later).

    ~Jon

  25. A_M_Swallow says:

    If we assume ~$100/kg launch costs – and significant off planet activity probably would justify the development of such low launch costs, then the economics look a little different. Insitu resources should likely initially compete on goods dominated by raw material costs (solar cells?), not high labor manufactured goods like complicated solar thermal power systems.

    It is going to be many years before launch costs drop below $4,000/kg giving something like $50,000/kg on the Moon.

    The heat collector for a Stirling engine is a metal tank. A bent metal sheet will act as a mirror. The cooling radiator is metal piping, possibly with a metal cover. These heavy objects are not that different from (metal) structure.

    The coils for the dynamo will require the winding of copper or iron wire. There is plenty of metal on the Moon and processing it requires lots of electricity.

  26. Pete says:

    It is going to be many years before launch costs drop below $4,000/kg giving something like $50,000/kg on the Moon.

    A billion spread between five XCOR/Masten equivalents with an ongoing billion per year in launch market would probably achieve ~$500/kg launch within a decade and ~$100/kg within the following decade. Fuel cost to LEO is around $10/kg and I would expect a mature industry to ultimately get within a factor of five of that. Realistically the moon is not going to happen without New Space and if you have New Space then you should get the above. If your moon settlement is going to cost more than say ten billion then you should probably do the above first.

    The heat collector for a Stirling engine is a metal tank. A bent metal sheet will act as a mirror. The cooling radiator is metal piping, possibly with a metal cover. These heavy objects are not that different from (metal) structure.

    There is a lot of development to be done in space before metal structures can be made from insitu resources – that is not a first step. This approach would require a lot of labor and imported components, cheap imported solar power systems will need to come first. Also, one would not use Stirling engines. Mcmaster does not currently deliver to the moon, developing a functional engineering workshop with all the necessary support on the moon would be a truly hard but worthy objective in and of itself.

    The coils for the dynamo will require the winding of copper or iron wire. There is plenty of metal on the Moon and processing it requires lots of electricity.

    There is a lot more to electric motors/generators than some copper and iron. I expect this is a component that would be imported, at ~3kW/kg this is not such a big deal.

  27. MikeLong says:

    Glad to hear things are moving along for you Jon!
    Best of luck and keep us posted!

  28. Pete, I believe the concept of ISRU electric motor development on the Moon is primarily crude aluminum and some arbitrary insulator. But yes, I’ve never seen anyone close it and do real experimental work to demonstrate it.

    The concept is, you start with a simple electric furnace like this:

    http://www.dansworkshop.com/aluminum-foundry/homebuilt-electric-melting-furnace.htm

    and demonstrate that you can make electric motors with it.. Now you have to demonstrate you can automate their construction, using the very motors that you’ve produced, which means solving the control problem.. I’ve seen arguments for “vacuum tubes” over semiconductors, but if you can make solar cells you can probably make processing units too. Speaking of which, next demonstrate that you can power it with in-situ produced solar. Finally, demonstrate that you can make another furnace.

    Congratulations, you have a self-replicating system, feel free to program it to do something other than just reproduce, I recommend collection and storage of all the interesting volatiles. Send the initial “seed” to the Moon and allow it to spread across the surface. When humans arrive they have a “forest” that they can hunt and gather from.. sure beats magnificent desolation.

  29. Josh Cryer says:

    Need I point out that you could, economically, supply Earth with metals from a lunar factory. This text box is, sadly, too narrow to contain the proof. Look up USGS metals prices, assume a 10 year return on investment, it’s not terribly inconceivable. πŸ™‚

  30. googaw says:

    Good luck Jon!

    Using the lower-hanging fruit exercise, the microdepot ideas we were throwing around a few months ago are a prerequisite of ISRU propellant manufacture but easier, and space mechanisms are a proper subset of microdepots. Currently Sierra Nevada (the part that was formerly SpaceDev) has a near-monopoly on space mechanisms and are overcharging for them and screwing their employees who know how to make them. So if I were Jon, I’d specialize as a sub-sub-contractor in space mechanisms, especially mechanisms involved in propellant storage and transfer.

  31. googaw says:

    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, each of said machines with 100-10,000 unique parts, and the machines to make those parts, ….

    Modern technology is based on the extreme division of labor in our global economy. Any hi-tech machine requires for its manufacture, when we combine all the indirect with the direct dependencies, millions of workers making millions of kinds of parts out of a dizzying array of materials processed in a vast global network of mines and chemical plants and the like. No self-sufficient or self-replicating hi-tech economy can be smaller than that without a radical ground-up redesign of every machine within it. If you don’t believe me, try actually doing it, even in a very partial way, instead of hand-waving. Getting anywhere close to self-sufficient or self-replicating requires the complete redesign of at least thousands of machines, according to principles that we have not as yet learned: a vast and unprecedented task that we have hardly even started to contemplate.

  32. Paul says:

    Trent:
    “but if you can make solar cells you can probably make processing units too.”

    The reverse of this argument is why I doubt in-situ production of solar will be seen in my lifetime (let alone anything more complex.) Have you ever seen a chip fab? And the steps necessary for production? It is so not the next step after bulk metal structures, glass and electrical wiring. There’s a thousand steps between a machine shop and a chip fab. (There will be maternity hospitals on the moon before there are chip makers.)

    “I’ve seen arguments for “vacuum tubes” over semiconductors,”

    Gak, boxes of chips and ancillary bits will always have a high enough value-density to justify shipping them from Earth. Seriously, my entire country doesn’t have a chip fab, and we don’t use vacuum tubes.

    Everyone:

    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.

  33. Pete says:

    Thank you Googaw and Paul.

    Standardized and evolving micro modules for everything from depots to satellites, robotic missions and space stations is something I have become a little obsessed about. To the point where I feel guilty for continually suggesting them.

    Thinking about solar power satellites (and the to me prohibitive difficulty of getting their power back to Earth) I have been wondering if a killer application for space might be data centers – a cloud in the heavens.

    It might be possible to integrate CPUs and memory storage into the back of a solar cell. The solar cell providing both power and radiative cooling – two big constraints on data centers (data centers require huge amounts of electricity).

    If launch costs were only ~$100/kg then they might not dominate the cost and this could be economically manufactured on and launched from Earth. Other advantages might be independence from earth government regulations and the capacity for internet without borders. I wonder what the launch cost threshold would be for this to make economic sense? Anyway, strange thought for the day.

  34. Googaw, Paul, one has to actually go study this stuff to see why the lunar environment is *different*.

  35. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w_znRopGtbE

    that’s the water intensive process that won’t work on the Moon, but you get the idea.

  36. googaw says:

    Trent, the only environment that would make self-replicating entities radically easier is one that already had them, i.e. life, or could probably easily support seem (e.g. the ocean under Europa — but the result there would be an energy-starved ecosystem far less productive than the agriculture we are used to). Conditions quite the opposite of the lifeless and extremely arid moon, which I have closely studied, thank you anyway. And said self-replicating entities would be living things, not hi-tech electronics or other sophisticated manufactures.

    Seriously, instead of just hand-waving about a furnace go actually do a complete parts inventory of it. And then go look up all the machines needed to make those dozens of parts and to mine and process the wide variety of materials used in those parts. Do a parts inventory of all those machines. And so on. It should not take much research by you along these lines for you to come to agree with me that, at the very least, a radical redesign of all these machines from the ground up to radically reduce their complexity will be necessary (to which I’d add, if it’s possible, but you don’t need to go with me that far, I’d be happy just to see you do the homework and come to grips with the astronomical complexity implicit in such proposals).

    You couldn’t make a self-replicating set of machines that could make high-tech electronics like solar cells even on a large but blockaded Pacific island with thousands of human workers, much less on the moon with a handful of extremely expensive astronauts and a great scarcity of the necessary volatile chemicals needed for many of the tens of thousands (at least) of processing steps. But the environment is a distraction — machines can alter their environment, but the real problem is the astronomical complexity of our high technology economy which those spouting on about “self-replicating robots” wave away in a way one might imagine somebody who doesn’t understand physics proposing a weekend trip to the Andromeda Galaxy, as if the vast distance and the Lorentz transformation were irrelevant.

    Pete, the data center is a promising direction, for which visionary Keith Lofstrom is working on a remarkably interesting approach which might greatly reduce the cost of the needed solar power on-orbit:

    http://server-sky.com/

  37. Pete says:

    Trent, it is not just about environmental differences, it is mostly about population level and degree of specialization. Small isolated populations can not sustain high technology levels (consider the history of Tasmanian Aborigines – toxic algae bloom excepted).

    The moon will not be able to sustain high technology levels without substantial trade and/or a very large population. This is the reason why I advocate LEO as the best initial place for space development – access to trade and population.

    The first lunar priority is probably water for propellants and regolith for starting the extra terrestrial manufacturing development process. I would initially suggest a LH2/LOX transport link between the moon and LEO, with the capacity to start shipping regolith to LEO. Let economics drive it from there.

  38. googaw says:

    Somebody made a solar cell in a garage out of ordinary chemicals anybody can buy, and it contains titanium dioxide which is all over the moon, so it must be easy to do on the moon, right?

    Wrong. Do the exercise. List the parts and materials. I may have missed some but here is what I came up with:

    * Human worker in suitably oxgenated and pressurized air
    * Rubber gloves
    * Table with surface suitable for withstanding the chemicals
    * Titanium dioxide, purified
    * Clear vinegar
    * “Detergent”
    * Pyrex or glass vials
    * Acetone (as cleaning flud)
    * Indium tin oxide glass manufactured to be conductive on one side
    * Voltmeter to test which side of the glass is conductive
    * Tape
    * Raspberries (or other source of anthocyanin dye molecules)
    * Hot plate (requires some electric generating or other suitable heat generating machinery)
    * Ethanol
    * Candle or other source of carbon soot
    * Pure iodine crystals
    * Potassium iodide
    * Anhydrous ethylene glycol
    * Binder clips
    * Light for testing the solar cell

    If you can substitute something else equally functional for any of these, fine, but no hand-waving allowed.

    This list is only the tiniest first step. Now repeat this step for all the machines needed to make all the above chemicals and machines. No hand-waving allowed, make complete lists. And then the machines to make the input materials and parts, and the machines to make those machines. And so on. Pretty soon you are talking about a global economy with millions of workers doing an astronomically complex variety of things, required to make this cute experiment even possible. And yes, you will spend the rest of your life making these lists and never get very far through the entire network of dependencies.

    I’m ignoring the fact that these cells “have a very short lifespan” and that their two thick chunks of glass only generate 10 billionths of a watt. The problem of actual making any sort of solar cell on the moon without massive industrial machines and chemical inputs and thousands of workers brought from earth is the far more important problem.

  39. googaw says:

    Pete, a counter-example, but only a slight one, is the Polynesians, who had self-sufficient economies numbering in the thousands (and in some cases even hundreds? not sure) that could make nice seaworthy boats. Of course, they had the advantage of environments that already supported highly evolved self-replicating “machines”, such as the trees and other plants out of which they made their seaworthy catamarans. They couldn’t make anything remotely close to space technology — they couldn’t even make metals like copper or iron. But they could make enough out of the results of billions of years of evolving self-replication to get around the Pacific.

    BTW, I do applaud Trent’s research uncovering these kinds of simplified manufacturing processes. These kinds of simplifications are indeed the kinds of things I have in mind when I say that we will have to radically redesign at least tends of thousands of machines and manufacturing process before we can have self-sufficient space colonization. This radical redesign is even more important in the long than lowering launch costs. But please let’s not underestimate the incredible complexity involved in this task and thus the time it will take for ourselves, our children, and probably our grandchildren to solve it.

  40. Pete says:

    Pete, the data center is a promising direction, for which visionary Keith Lofstrom is working on a remarkably interesting approach which might greatly reduce the cost of the needed solar power on-orbit:
    http://server-sky.com/

    “4200 kilograms is 1,400,000 server-sats and 5.6 megawatts of electricity. Thus, a server-sat array can produce more than 400 times the power (and communication capacity) of typical comsats.”

    This is a very powerful potentially world changing concept, it raises many possibilities. It is a killer app that would make new space happen fast! – and it might just be possible.

    Radiation constraints would be my initial concern (uncertainty?). Self assembling these ~3gram wafer modules to make larger spin stabilized systems should also be relatively straight forward – if desired (could even do adaptive optics tricks).

    Here is a 5000m^2 art installation using 250,000 hanging reflective aluminum panels:
    http://plusmood.com/2010/07/brisbane-domestic-terminal-car-park-facade-urban-art-projects-uap/

    It really is not that crazy an idea.

  41. A_M_Swallow says:

    The initial seed machines are made on Earth, so they can have maximum complexity.
    We do not need total reproduction, something like 80% will do – providing it includes the heavy parts.
    Design our new technology for the Moon and work back.
    We have;
    vacuum
    sun light half the time
    extreme cold half the time

    oxygen (in compounds)
    silicon
    iron
    calcium
    aluminium
    magnesium

    a few human beings
    imagination
    compounds like silicon oxide (raw material for glass and fibre glass)

    What we do not have are:
    lots of people
    an atmosphere
    nitrogen
    carbon
    hydrogen
    large quantities of water
    inert gasses
    other liquids

  42. Pete says:

    Pete, a counter-example, but only a slight one, is the Polynesians, who had self-sufficient economies numbering in the thousands (and in some cases even hundreds? not sure) that could make nice seaworthy boats.

    Yes, their boats were much faster than the clipper ships and some sustainable tribes were as small as a few hundred – though they did tend to trade a bit. Having said that, I suspect they had actually peaked a bit as a civilization. The Inuit were probably as impressive or more so, and the Vikings did bring some serious tech to the US back in ~1000AD, including steel – before they died out…

    Creating a sustainable colony is not that easy, even when the living is easy (as the history of the US well demonstrates). There is a significant critical mass required even for low tech societies. The more people we can get into space the better, I suspect thousands to tens of thousands will be required initially to make a sustainable settlement.

  43. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Me, I’ve always felt that autarky was seriously overrated. I’d rather see space settlements that are economically integrated with the rest of human civilization than trying to build self-sufficient societies.

  44. The self-replicating machines studies have been done *dozens* of times. To ridiculous levels of detail.. and most of them are available.

    The problem is not a lack of study. The problem is a lack of *doing*.

  45. Pete says:

    The self-replicating machines studies have been done *dozens* of times. To ridiculous levels of detail.. and most of them are available.

    The problem is not a lack of study. The problem is a lack of *doing*.

    Yes, we need a couple of thousand people up there doing.

    Assuming adding 500 people per year and allowing 10ton/person at $1000/kg that is only a cost of 5 billion per year for a reasonable growth rate – not impossibly expensive.

    I would favor skimming the Earth’s atmosphere for volatiles and a LH2/LOX transport system for shipping lunar water and regolith back to LEO at the first available opportunity. This would enable getting started on all that development work sooner rather than later, although there should be no shortage of development work before then (hangers, workshops, greenhouses, big power systems, tugs, spinning habitats, full recycling, etc.).

  46. googaw says:

    A.M. Swallow, the complexity comes in actually designing and building such an economy. As opposed to making simple lists of elements as if they will magically assemble themselves into a full-fledged industrial economy. Such design is astronomically beyond the capability of any human designers or group of same, as my exercise, if you try it, will show you.

    As for 80%, that’s a far far easier problem: propellant, tankage, and (for some applications) shielding often make up more than 80% of the mass of stuff we launch. Make those from lunar or asteroidal material using far lighter machines made the old-fashioned way on Earth, and we’ve saved 80% of our launch budget, not counting big wins from having more propellant, tankage, and shielding around than we otherwise would have used had we had to launch them from earth. No economic fantasies about self-sufficient economies needed, just some high mass output ratio mining and processing equipment made on earth. As Pete suggested that’s the way we will be start living off the land in space over the next century, by starting with the simple but high-mass stuff.

    Trent, I’ve seen most of those studies, they are pure, unadulterated, 100% handwavium. Just because something is called a “study”, written up in TeX, with a NASA logo, and the like, does not keep it from being sheer economic fantasy. None of the authors of these studies have ever actually built anything remotely resembling a self-sufficient economy. That stuff, for all its scientific-sounding gloss (look ma, it’s an exponential equation!) lacks even a modicum of economic literacy or common sense.

    My own prognostication is that Jon will end up a happier person than Trent, his preferences being more aligned to what can actually happen. I’m not trying to discourage Trent or A.M. Swallow, since I too believe self-sufficiency and self-replication are very important goals. I just want them and I to not be too disappointed when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren have to finish the job that we are merely starting.

  47. googaw says:

    Assuming adding 500 people per year and allowing 10ton/person at $1000/kg

    Ack! Now we’re back to the other, more traditional economic fantasy. Launch costs are not much lower now than they were forty years ago, but with the wave of the hand, presto, magico, we will prognosticate orders of magnitude off the cost!

    I’m afraid the real costs of getting stuff (much less people) to the moon is well over $100,000/kg. Even if lunar-derived propellants etc. make the trip from LEO to the moon practically free, it’s still a cool $10,000/kg to get to LEO. At 10 tonnes/person that’s $100 million per person. They are going to have to be paid quite extraordinarily well indeed to be able to pay off the loan they made to buy that ticket. That’s some fantastic productivity considering they’ve left all but a roomful of earth’s machines behind.

    What are they working on to make all that money?

  48. Googaw,
    While I actually side with you on the topic of self-replicating robots, I do still disagree with you that the high cost of space transportation is an inevitably permanent situation. I’m pretty firmly convinced that even using existing chemical rocket propulsion, that you can sort out the technology needed to enable low-maintenance, quick turnaround reusability in a way to drastically reduce the cost. Probably not orders of magnitude reduction over night, but enough to change the equation for many markets.

    I do agree though that unless the earth-to-orbit transportation costs can be brought down substantially, that even with lunar ISRU, the cost of doing much of anything on the moon will be prohibitively expensive. Especially massive government-funded colonization efforts.

    Would you at least agree though that *if* I’m right about launch costs being able to be substantially reduced, that it might make some of the markets you’ve poo-poohed more realistic?

    ~Jon

  49. Pete says:

    “Assuming adding 500 people per year and allowing 10ton/person at $1000/kg”

    Ack! Now we’re back to the other, more traditional economic fantasy. Launch costs are not much lower now than they were forty years ago, but with the wave of the hand, presto, magico, we will prognosticate orders of magnitude off the cost!

    I was actually assuming LEO here, not the moon, the moon is far too remote from Earth for near term practical development work. Also, 500*10ton is approximately a tenfold increase in annual launch market and I was also assuming next generation RLVs here. Such a large market would hopefully prompt their commercial development – something like what XCOR or Masten might come up with. I see little point in starting space settlement with existing launch vehicles, it would be a waste of money/market.

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