Meteor Crater, Dinosaurs, and Spacefaring

On the way home from the Space Access 2012 conference yesterday, we drove by Meteor Crater, Arizona. I’m not much of a photographer, but I take pictures anyway. Here’s a few of my favorites:

While I was standing there looking at this pretty darned impressive hole in the ground, I started thinking about Larry Niven’s quip about how “Dinosaurs went extinct because they didn’t have a space program”. As I said on Twitter during the drive, I don’t think our space program would actually do us much good in stopping an extinction-level meteor strike, even if we had 5-10 years advanced notice (which we most likely wouldn’t have because we’re not doing the NEO search in the way that would actually give us much advanced warning).

I think a better way of thinking about this would be to say that “Dinosaurs went extinct because they weren’t spacefaring. Unfortunately, neither are we–yet.”

Speaking of spacefaring, I think that Paul Spudis’ article about the seafaring vs. aviation analogy for space was spot-on in illustrating this point. This is why I’m worried that the destination/mission focus of so much of the space debate is driving things in foolish directions. I actually side with Paul in thinking that cislunar space (including the surface of the Moon) is where it makes the most sense for us to develop ourselves into a spacefaring (and not just space-visiting) civilization. I just think a lot of the debate is on destinations versus whether we want to be forever stuck with one-off missions or whether we want to establish the kind of transportation infrastructure that enable something more like what Paul described (and ultimately what would be required if we want to be able to avoid repeating the fate of the Dinosaurs if it turns out some rock out there is addressed with our name on it).

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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.
This entry was posted in Commercial Space, Fun, Lunar Commerce, Lunar Exploration and Development, Space Development, Space Policy, Space Transportation. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Meteor Crater, Dinosaurs, and Spacefaring

  1. kert says:

    I sometimes wonder how much further along would we be, if we didn’t have Mars in our “neighborhood” at all. Maybe we would have come to grips with the fact that if we really want to become spacefaring, it’s going to be a tough slog and we better start working on the hard problems sooner.

  2. Will Baird says:

    Hey Jon,

    Sorry that life intervened and I could not make it to SA. That’s a whole different kettle though.

    The thing is that more and more are seeing that there isn’t a Dinosaur Killer out there for us to be worried about. A comet, yeah, but asteroids are so 1990s. 😉

  3. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Yeah I do worry that Mars has gotten us to take our eyes off the ball of actually becoming spacefaring. It’s just close enough that if you’re delusional enough you think we might be able to do some stunt missions without actually building a real infrastructure. But each time it ends up being an expensive delusion.

    Or to paraphrase a cynical comment I made to a friend “If God had intended man to become spacefaring, he would’ve given them a Moon, but if he intended them to take a really long time becoming spacefaring, he’d also give them a Mars.”


  4. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Oh I know that asteroids aren’t that huge of a threat. What annoys me is that they are a non-trivial threat nonetheless, and most of the pittance NASA is putting into NEO detection only catches earth-crossing NEOs within a few weeks of when the pass on the outside of the earth (ie typically almost no advanced notice, and we’ve only caught a tiny percentage of that population). Of all the stuff NASA does, the most legitimate I would think is making sure we know where dangerous stuff is. It’d also be really useful for finding good destinations for human and robotic asteroid missions. But in spite of a good Venus-orbit-looking-outward NEO-hunter mission likely costing only $300-500M, NASA would much rather spend money on big rockets.


  5. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    I actually think the Moon is too big, as well. If we had Phobos and Deimos just outside GSO, a manned mission and mineral exploitation would be a lot easier. But the Moon is actually pretty mineral-poor and is pretty dangerous to land on. Phobos/Deimos can be landed on practically with just an MMU or a long rope from a spacecraft at their respective Lagrange points. But the Moon is about right for orbital dynamics advantages (i.e. the Lagrange points are great staging areas).

    I think people underestimate the advantages of even a slight atmosphere. Initial ISRU on the Moon is going to be a lot harder than on Mars.

    And don’t forget that Mars is what motivated a lot of the early space pioneers. The Moon is just a big rock, a big version of an asteroid with too much gravity for super easy landing and launching, enough to pull much of the interesting minerals deep inside but not enough to keep any kind of atmosphere. Mars, on the other hand, is a different story, with already-refined metal sitting all over the surface (Spirit and Opportunity found all sorts of these metallic meteorites and they don’t have much range), a significant atmosphere to provide aerobraking/aerocapture/reentry, enough atmosphere to protect astronauts from any acute effects from solar particle events, enough pressure to provide very easy ISRU for both fuel and oxidizer (carbon monoxide and oxygen), enough even for liquid water to exist on some locations when the temperature gets high enough. There’s a ridiculous amount of water and carbon dioxide ice underground and on thinly-veiled glaciers, and the temperature difference between day/night is far less which makes material properties a lot easier.

    I don’t think Mars is too far away. A small (Salyut-sized) exploration gateway at EML1/2 could serve both the Moon and Mars and greatly facilitate reusable architectures to both destinations, and provide an excellent staging point for asteroids as well (thus giving us a better chance of deflecting an asteroid, since much of the infrastructure needed for such an effort is already in place). It could serve as a depot for hydrolox and Argon (or Xenon), a perfect staging point. It could even be justified on a planetary defense basis, since one of the best, most precise methods of deflection would be a SEP vehicle needing a whole bunch of propellant and mass (and an initial boost using hydrolox) and since it makes sense to hide out on the edge of the Earth’s gravity well since it would greatly speed the delivery of a deflection craft while still having a low IMLEO (which probably would be unmanned, but may need to be so large that having the ability to aid deployment in at the Lagrange point with on-site crew would significantly increase its chances of success). Keeping propellant stored so high out of the Earth’s gravity well increases our chances of deflecting an asteroid in time.

    But I really disagree that building more infrastructure on the Moon (unless the target is the Moon) may well be a distraction. Building infrastructure in orbit, high out of the gravity well is a better idea, since it lets you get anywhere in the inner solar system a lot easier on short notice, a lot more mass on target for the same launch rate capacity.

    And if it makes sense to develop the Moon for propellant uses, that’s a good opportunity for private development and risk-taking, since it’s a natural staging point anyway that just happens to be very close to the Moon. Much better than hauling the propellant all the way back to LEO or something like that.

  6. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    Ah, shoot. I did another one of those novel-length responses. 🙁

    Moon is a rock (no atmosphere), Mars is a planet (useful atmosphere, plentiful volatiles all over the place, can be terraformed). Better to build infrastructure high out of gravity wells, doesn’t preclude Moon propellant (and facilitates it pretty well, actually) but doesn’t optimistically assume it either. Infrastructure outside of gravity wells is better suited for launching an asteroid deflection mission. Mars is much, much better than the mineral-poor Moon for developing an independent, self-sufficient human colony.

  7. Blackjax says:

    How to sell a Mars based agenda in 4 easy steps

    Step 1: Decide that you really want to go to mars, because…well…you just want to.

    Step 2: Compile a list of rationalizations and justifications that overemphasize the benefits of going to mars while downplaying or dismissing the issues with doing so

    Step 3: Compile a list of rationalizations and justifications that overemphasize the drawbacks of going to anywhere else while downplaying or dismissing the benefits of doing so

    Step 4: Endlessly repeat the items compiled in steps 2 & 3 to people who have heard them all before while ignoring the fact that they are not convincing unless you’ve already performed step 1

    Repeat steps 2-4 ad nauseum.

    Note: it is truly important to decide first that it is important to go to Mars before looking into any rationale for how space development might happen effectively because if you don’t, you might find that an open mind hampers your ability to cling to Mars as an short term objective.

    Sorry if the above is a bit snide, but I agree with Jon. The focus should be on becoming truly spacefaring, not on any particular destination you are trying to trick people into going to under the excuse that it will help us become spacefaring. If you want to go someplace specific like mars, just admit it, don’t pretend that your personal objective to get there is somehow the best way to advance the development of space. We get enough of that garbage from Zubrin.

  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:


    Let’s try to keep comments polite, and focused on the argument not the arguer, please.


    While there are some benefits to Mars, it’s just too far for first steps. The Moon has a decent amount of natural resources, and it has the overwhelming advantage of being close, and much easier to reach than Mars. While I agree that Phobos/Deimos will eventually become important real estate, and I think that for asteroid detection and deflection you’re going to need a base of operations (or more than one) away from Earth itself, I think that Mars is much further distant than many other space fans. Honestly, as a place for large-scale off-Earth colonies, I actually think Venus cloud-colonies have just as much near-term potential.

    The biggest challenge with Mars (and slightly lesser with Venus) is that whole 2yr synodic period until you have very high power to weight non-chemical propulsion. It’s just going to be hard to get anywhere near as much throughput delivered to Mars (likely by several orders of magnitude) compared to the Moon. It’ll get there eventually, but a civilization that has mastered cislunar space is well on its way to mastering all of its environs. One that treats the Moon as an option that is totally bypassable will miss out. IMHO, of course.


  9. Chris (Robotbeat) says:

    I was thinking that the best place to put the infrastructure needed for a base of operations to deflect an asteroid is in cislunar space, a Lagrange point like EML2, not Mars. In the near-term, it’s better to start out high in the Earth’s gravity well, and as we solve the Earth-to-LEO problem, it makes lunar ISRU that much harder to compete (still very close if lunar ISRU does hold).

    Mars is a good place for one-way trips and self-sufficient settlements, though not necessarily a hub of bustling commerce with Earth. For small, ruggidized payloads which can easily take advantage of its atmosphere to slow down (with a small landing motor), you can actually get a lot of payload to Mars for a certain IMLEO (IMLEO:SurfacePayload of down to 3 or 4 if combined with SEP for initial push towards Mars…).

    The Moon is close, but it has far fewer resources than Mars. Mars has CO2/N/Ar everywhere on the surface, has bountiful solid H2O (and H2O in the atmosphere at some spots in certain seasons), which takes care of the big 4 (H, O, N, C) on a large portion of its surface, has lots of pre-refined Fe/Ni just ready to be turned into structural materials (no electrolysis), and has plentiful salts that could be used for feeding hydroponics. The geological processes also mean more mineral concentrations (ala gypsum veins for ISRU concrete) is increased. ISRU will be so much easier that I predict that a permanent base on Mars would cost LESS to support once established than a permanent Moon base, if we assume one-way for residents on both celestial bodies. Also, micrometeorite debris is not a problem on Mars (while it is on the Moon, no thin greenhouses… which would get too hot on the Moon anyway).

    Mars: hard to get there, easier to stay.

    BTW, one topic I’m really interested in is temporary moons of Earth… small NEAs that get temporarily captured on the edge of the Earth’s Hill Sphere. Lowest delta-v and low delta-t target for mining and/or ISRU or other use. Just need to find them! 🙂 But could be captured and brought to EML2 for study and mining, etc. Dynamical studies suggest there probably is one there right now…


  10. Tom D says:

    What is really needed is Cheap Access To Space (CATS). Once we have that different parties will surely begin doing all of the above. The actual settlement of the solar system will almost certainly not be a monolithic government program.

  11. kert says:

    Mars is a good place for one-way trips and self-sufficient settlements

    So here is my problem with this : two huge leaps of faith in one sentence, being on another celestial body AND having a self sufficient settlement. I can take either one but not both at the same time, and i consider myself a futuristic geek.

    For most people that matter, i.e. angel investors, businessmen, politicians, religious cult leaders etc this will forever be too much.

    And note that you just flawlessly performed steps 2-4 that Blackjax listed above.

  12. Pingback: Transterrestrial Musings - Spacefaring

  13. Blackjax says:

    Apologies. Was in a bad mood but that is no excuse for being rude. Sorry.

  14. ken anthony says:

    Mars provides for an independent industrial society. The moon will always be earths bitch (that’s a technical term.)

    Having an industrial society on a 0.38g world is what will open up the solar system.

    Private property pays for the whole thing.

  15. Adam G. says:

    I’m a Mars enthusiast. But really, who cares? Since CRATS, LEO depots and staging areas, and Lagrange depots and staging areas facilitate moon use AND martian settlement AND a whole bunch of other things besides, I see no reason why the lunar-advocate rancher and the martian-enthusiast farmer shouldn’t be friends (with apologies to Oklahoma!).

  16. gbaikie says:

    It seems possible that in the future, ISS will be said to have been responsible for opening the space frontier.

    Though it’s more likely that in the future, very few will care what is claimed to be responsible- there will a multitude of stories. And in final analysis, ISS is as good as any.
    Opening the space frontier could be like a rain cloud forming.

    In the future perhaps ISS will also be claimed to start a world government and/or governments in space. The UN by such time could seen as League of Nation.
    It seems to me that if there are nations in space, we will get earth government but not until such time.

    At the moment to me, in terms opening the space frontier, the skies appear quite clear and there no accurate weather forecast.
    Clouds do appear, but when it rains is it going light drizzle, or Noah’s flood?

    Now, why could ISS be seen in the future as the starting of the opening of the space frontier, the beginning of governments in space and the formation of Earth’s world government?

    Other than farce, how could have anything to do with reality?
    A very simple answer could be it continued during a time in which the space frontier opened, and perhaps ISS will still exist by the year 2100.
    Another simple answer could be the ISS “beginnings” could be said to have started before the end of the Cold war. And because space will seen as important in the future, few will understand how unimportant space was at the turn of 21 century. Because space is both very important and also utterly unimportant.
    The only reason we do not have colonies on the Moon and Mars is due to space not being regarded as important. Which is a mind boggling idea, even at the present time, and would be more outlandish to anyone in the future which is say, living on the Moon.

    The other reason ISS could regarding as important is because it is an activity in which nations on earth are involved, and it could be that eventually China could become involved. And additional nations also could join. ISS has a chance of “growing” in the future, it’s possible that even if ISS fell out of sky tomorrow that in future it will seen as significant.
    ISS has already taken the step towards having commercial launch providers resupply it. That is huge step in terms of NASA “evolution”. And it result of such steps will probably not be erased
    if ISS fell out of the sky tomorrow.
    I see other aspects regarding ISS which could be “hopeful”:
    And find this organization possible being hopeful:

    ISS will not be important because of it’s hardware. It will important because it’s possiblity of forming “social organization”. And could a part of why it rains.

  17. Paul451 says:

    Missed this thread the first time around:

    “Moon is a rock […] Mars is a planet […]”

    This is what Isaac Asimov called “Planetary Chauvinism”. The blinding effect of the assumption that because you live on a planet, there’s something better/easier/more-natural about living on a planet.

    I think it’s better to try to get into the habit of treating planets as universally bad – unless there’s a specific reason why a particular planet is good in a specific case. Because it’s usually easier to counter an anti-Planetary bias for a specific case, than it is to counter a Planetary bias in general…

    For example, you don’t even see the contradiction between writing praises for Mars, and then immediately writing:

    “Better to build infrastructure high out of gravity wells,”

    Mars is a gravity well. A fairly deep gravity well. It’s deep enough to make it hard to get down, deep enough to make it hard to get out again. Similar problem with the atmosphere. [1] Essentially, Mars is a destination. None of its mineral wealth (even if you are right), water, fuel, air, etc, will ever be available off-Mars.

    However, every non-planetary target, from the moon, to asteroids, to the moons of Mars, to the outer moons, are stepping stones to the next target. Their advocates are always more interested in how you use their resources for other things, than how to merely survive there.

    But more that that, off-planet resource exploitation is intended to be financially self-sufficient. By, at the very least, lowering the price for projects useful to Earth (such as SPS. Or even just satellite refuelling.)

    This focus on economic self-sufficiency also means that every resource you make available from non-planetary bodies, every bit of infrastructure you create outside of gravity-wells, makes it easier and vastly cheaper to visit, enbase, or colonise Mars (or anywhere else.)

    However, every resource you spend developing a “self-sustaining” infrastructure on Mars, the more you delay developing any other target. Nothing, except possibly the ships that travel between Earth-orbit and Mars-orbit, can be used for any other mission. Everything you use on Mars is, due to the very properties you praise about Mars, uniquely & expensively Martian.

    [1. The atmosphere manages to be both too thin and too thick. It’s too thin to slow down a reentering capsule, but just thick enough to rule out simple retro-rockets. Thin enough to make flight hard, thick enough to eliminate linear-accelerator launchers. Too thin to eliminate the dangers and delays of space-suit EVAs, but thick enough to cause thermal problems…

    For example, you see the difficulties in a greenhouse on the moon because it’s an unfamiliar environment, your mind is more open to the problems. But because you think of Mars as a “planet” with an “atmosphere”, then greenhouses must be easy. But Mars’ atmosphere is just thick enough to dramatically increase heat-loss at night. Much more than an orbiting greenhouse. To the point where it may cost less energy to bury a Martian greenhouse and artificially light it, than to try to artificially heat it at night, in winter, and during dust storms. (This problem also affects habs, vehicles, everything.) You don’t see that, because you always see an atmosphere, even a thin Martian atmosphere, as a positive. In reality, you’ve got all the problems of working in a vacuum, and all the problems of working in a dusty, achingly cold atmosphere. Worst of both worlds.

    IMO, Mars may be the hardest target in the solar system.]

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