Amistics of Human Spaceflight, or How Autonomy and Miniaturization can be the Enemies of Human Spaceflight (Part 1)

File:Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. An Old-Order Amishman working in his repair shop. Good machine sho . . . - NARA - 521078.jpgNeal Stephenson in his novel Seveneves coined the term “Amistics”, deriving from how some Amish people have strong preferences for certain technological paths to achieve the same goal. For instance, these Amish folk swear off modern technology, which for them means electricity. Therefore, they cannot use electric power tools for their furniture-making. Instead, they use just-as-modern air-powered tools. Similar productivity, same result, but they’re able to honor their cultural proclivities. In Seveneves (not to spoil it for Jon), similar proclivities develop in the groups mentioned in the book.

Spaceflight is rife with examples of this. One is the pro-vs-anti hydrogen schools of thought. Dumb, mass-produced expendable vs high tech reusable. But probably the most important for the future of humanity is the amistics of robots vs humans.

It gets started at the beginning of the space race in another example of technology path-dependence. Due to the US’s earlier start, America’s nuclear weapon technology had significantly more advanced miniaturization technology than the Soviets. For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, the US also maintained a very strong advantage in electronics and computerization. Additionally, the US had an advantage in long-range bomber technology. This led to the fact that the Russians focused on ICBMs while the US focused on long range bombers. And secondly, that the first Russian launch vehicles were ENORMOUS in comparison to the US’s. Russia developed the R7 and the Proton in part to be able to lob their nuclear weapons, which (from my limited knowledge) lacked both the miniaturization and precision of their American counterparts. The R7 was so big, that they could use it to launch Sputnik to orbit. And later on, the first crewed launch (Vostok), and eventually even up to 3 people on a single rocket that is used to this day. The US, on the other hand, was caught by surprise by the advanced Soviet ICBMs. Large ICBMs like Proton were not required due to better targeting and miniaturization, thus the US had to develop heavy launch vehicles intently for spaceflight purposes.

And thus the Soviets racked up success after success in the early history of human spaceflight due to the path dependency of tech development. It was only after a concerted, civilian-focused effort of development that the US exceeded the Russians, by an enormous margin.

But the Soviets maintained some of these advantages. They pressed their early leads in human spaceflight and while the US rushed to the Moon, the Soviets developed crewed space stations designed for surveillance. The Almaz program launched Salyut 2, 3, and 5. Soviet military personnel conducted surveillance from orbit in real time. The Americans, for their part, had a similar program, the Manned Orbital Laboratory, or MOL, based on Gemini technology. An uncrewed demo of the capsule was launched, but the program was cancelled soon (in 1969) as it became clear that automatic satellite surveillance was sufficiently advanced that it wasn’t required nor worth the cost. The US’s lead in automation again struck a blow to human spaceflight.

About a decade after (1978), the Soviets came to a similar conclusion and ended their manned orbital surveillance program. But not before advancing their space station technology sufficiently to place them at a Image result for soyuz rocketdramatic advantage over the US in long-duration human spaceflight (as measured by orbital refueling, human spaceflight duration records, etc), an advantage that STILL has not quite yet been eclipsed (although it’s close). And because of the early focus on large launch vehicles and human spaceflight over miniaturization and automation, the Russian human spaceflight program survived the fall of the Soviet Union and to this day US NASA astronauts rely on Russian vehicles to get space.

Now, humans make terrible surveillance satellites, but these historical examples should make us think twice about whether the best way to push for a future where millions are living and working in space is to invest in miniaturization and automation. Because in my opinion, the most likely result is that any useful things a human can do in space will become obsoleted by robotics much faster than otherwise, thus reducing the need for humans in space at all. That’s not a winning strategy, IMHO. So I hope to blog later about how we can use humans in space MORE, in direct contradiction to the current trendy meme of increasing robotic automation in space.
We need to:
1) Find things for HUMANS to do in space.
2) Make it cheaper for humans to go to space.
3) Make it cheaper for humans to live and work in space.

We need a pro-human amistics, not the current pro-automation amistics (even when it doesn’t make sense, like when Elon tried to fully automate Model 3 production and had to switch over to human assembly). We need to engineer systems very close to the humans, including perhaps modifying the human body itself (or at least developing advanced biomedical countermeasures) to make humans more competitive with robotics in space.

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35 Responses to Amistics of Human Spaceflight, or How Autonomy and Miniaturization can be the Enemies of Human Spaceflight (Part 1)

  1. gbaikie says:

    –We need to:
    1) Find things for HUMANS to do in space.
    2) Make it cheaper for humans to go to space.
    3) Make it cheaper for humans to live and work in space.–

    What need humans in space for is exploration.
    For exploration which is important [rather than pretty pictures] human can do more exploration and humans can quickly do a lot exploration.
    And if you bring back sample returns, then it should be a manned exploration.
    As far as I know, if exploring for minerals to mine on Earth, one gets “sample returns”.
    Robots or satellite help narrow down where to look, but in the end you send people to the site to determine if it’s mineable [robots are not used for this].
    In terms of possible mining of water in the lunar in lunar poles. You need to find a site which should less than 1 square km. And one could mine just 1 square km for lunar water for more than decade. And everything depends upon the success of mining water water within the first five years.
    So one needs lunar sample returns of areas which are smaller than 1 square km, and know average amount water in a 100 square km area or larger, is fairly useless.

    In terms of Mars, it seems to me, that robotic exploration alone can determine if Mars settlement could viable. The only possible use of robotic alone exploration of Mars might be, to determine if life exists on Mars. And only purpose if finding life on Mars is to determine, that perhaps we should not have human settlements on Mars.
    Finding reasons why we should not have settlement on Mars can seen as valid reason to explore Mars, but I am bit confused why we should be happy to find life on Mars.
    If there is life on Mars than we should shift focus on Mercury- which should as lifeless as the Moon. And the mere excess desire to find life on Mars, should also force us to abandon further Mars exploration.
    I think finding any life on Mars would difficult to do, and accordingly I think Mars should be explored, soon.
    And if we do manned exploration of Mars and at some point do find evidence of alien life, basically we stop exploring Mars while determine all possible threats connected related to this alien life, and would outlaw human settlements until such time as the risk can be fully evaluated [keep crew there in quarantine, and things to shorten the time the crew have remain quarantine [spend lots of money and work on it around the clock- or it’s emergency type situation until the threat can be fully assessed].
    The only good news of finding alien life on Mars, is finding it before any human settlement is attempted. Now alien or earth-like life on Mars may not be problem, but it’s something would would need to be assessed.

    Cheaper for human going into space is mostly about having rocket fuel at destination you sending humans. Or humans are mostly costly, because they need to return to Earth and robots don’t need to be returned to Earth.
    So finding mineable water on the Moon, will lead to having it cheaper to send humans into space.

    — 3) Make it cheaper for humans to live and work in space–
    Well for manned exploration, I would not have NASA mining stuff, in foolish attempt to make it cheaper.
    One needs commercial mining to make it cheaper.
    What is making it cheaper to go into space is the global satellite market.
    And we need more markets in space.
    And the most important market to start, is selling lunar water on the lunar surface.
    Which requires exploration of lunar poles.
    And if mineable water is found, then it require a lunar electrical market. And lunar electrical market get us beyond Amish living or brings the Moon into the industrial age.
    So allows other markets, allows government bases, and etc.
    And I think exporting lunar LOX off the lunar surface and possibly lunar water, is needed in order to mine lunar water- allows mining lunar water to be profitable.

    And if one has lunar rocket fuel being made, then this make Mars settlements more viable. But if you somehow get Mars settlement first, one doesn’t need to mine lunar water to make lunar rocket fuel. So assuming the Moon doesn’t have minable water, if you “somehow” get mars settlements, one could mine the Moon without having mineable lunar water.
    It seems exploring the moon should be very quick and easy to do. And it seems Mars will harder and take longer. Simply due to only small area of Moon and only the surface which needs to be explored. Mars in vast area and will require drilling and underground exploration.

  2. Andrew_Swallow says:

    Someone needs to tell the Amish people that lightning is electricity. Lightning is mentioned in the Bible for example Psalm 148:8.

  3. Archibald says:

    We explored that question some years ago at

    My personal conclusion was that humans remain superior to robots in
    a) Skylab = fixing broken things in orbit
    b) Apollo 15 – 16 – 17: geology (the orange soil and genesis rock) and
    c) cattering very complex experiments in orbit (Skylab again, think ATM)

    Basically robots need everything planned in advance, with zero surprise along the way, because they can’t face the unknown. In geology and Hubble / Skylab servicing, that’s bad, and humans are superior.

  4. mike shupp says:

    Well yes, robots and microcircuits are smaller than humans, don’t need air and food, and can be launched on smaller rockets which don’ have to be man-rated, all of that
    making them much cheaper. Also we can expect electronics and software to improve fairly steadily for maybe a century to come; human performance in space is probably not going to improve at comparable rates.

    But this misses the major point: there are virtually no political objections to robots and microcircuits — partially because the cost is less, partially because unmanned spacecraft operate without attracting public attention except when NASA wants to show off pictures of interesting space objects. And inevitably, when it does so, articles pop up all over the place proclaiming that these neat photos prove once more that humans in space are not needed.

    This isn’t going to change until we have space programs to do things robots can’t do — such as live and die and make babies on Mars, i.e., space settlement, and sixty some years into the Space Age there isn’t a government on earth proclaiming any interest in ever putting colonists into space. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos talk about doing that, and you’ll note that most of the internet commentary that discusses their vision(s) is generally hostile, outside of space-related sites like this one.

    Maybe the Chinese or the Indians will eventually step into the gap, but I doubt they’ll be able to in the next several decades.

  5. Paul McDavies says:

    Jon, will you tell us the story of Masten Space Systems versus the Space Cynics?

  6. Chris Stelter says:

    mike shupp:
    Good points, and I plan to respond to them in a later post.

    Just a preview: Robots actually DO need a source of energy, and unless you’re using vacuum electronics (more expensive), sometimes they even need air (the Russians have traditionally used electronics in a pressurized, sealed nitrogen atmosphere). If you pared back the requirements of humans to the absolute essentials, then you’re left with a suited astronaut, technically could be launched on almost the smallest launch vehicles, like RocketLab’s Electron. Electronics progress has, in fact, slowed dramatically in the last few years:

    …and the human limbs are very effective compliant actuators from a force vs weight and speed perspective. Nothing is really comparable, particularly when you consider high speed sensory feedback, coupled with the sense of touch and sight. There’s a reason why saturation divers exist (in spite of similar risks and costs) in spite of the availability of undersea robotics.

    The point is that humans are just too expensive. I’m proposing how to change that and challenge it. What is the cost of the Dextre attachement on ISS? About $200 million. What’s the cost of a spacesuit? About $10 million. And the suited astronaut is much more capable and flexible than the Dextre attachment, although that too can be improved.

    Humans working in space won’t improve automatically. There has to be investment to make it happen. Right now, we’re pouring huge investment into space robotics and automation but haven’t developed a new operational EVA suit in my entire lifetime (although there has been some tech demos). If the goal is to have millions of people living and working in space, this does not seem like a logical choice; it seems like a recipe for removing the few remaining reasons to have humans in space in the first place. But I do believe we have a choice in this matter.

  7. mike shupp says:

    Chris —

    My thought is, if we actually had some number of people in space, a la Antarctica, over time competition between commercial suppliers would bring down the cost of keeping them alive and productive. It’d make SENSE to do some things on site, like extract water and oxygen from lunar rocks, and even to slap meat patties between buns with a ….uh. moonlighting … astronaut behind the grill at an ersatz Macdonalds and sell them fellow residents for less than shipping complete ready-to-thaw burgers at $100,000 per kilogram from earth. Granted, over time, space colony costs would be increasing in total, but we’d have costs per colonist dropping — probably enough to be visible to colonists and to skeptics.

    But it doesn’t happen without an absolute commitment to colonization, and I don’t see that happening until national governments accept such goals. Pity, since I think the general public would be supportive if colonization didn’t get too much hype — all those years of STAR TREK and THE EXPANSE ought to have had some effect.

    No Buck Rogers, No Bucks.

  8. Chris Stelter says:


    I see your point and generally have agreed with it in the past, but I think there might be other ways we can help. If commercial “saturation diver” astronauts were a thing, it’d provide an additional forcing function for space settlement, much more direct than other systems relying entirely on robotic automation. Fully automated space mining might make living in space a little cheaper, but it doesn’t directly place people in space. Fully robotic in-space assembly and repair is even worse as it actually reduces the need to place people in orbit at all compared to what we have on ISS.

    I’m not going to be rich enough to directly finance space settlement just for the heck of it. But if I can find another reason to send people to space besides the feel good ones us space enthusiasts have, then I will have made a dent.

  9. Jim Davis says:

    “Right now, we’re pouring huge investment into space robotics and automation but haven’t developed a new operational EVA suit in my entire lifetime (although there has been some tech demos).”

    Which should give you a clue to which of those activities has the higher payoff.

    The only reason we have any space capability at all is because of automation and miniaturization. All the killer applications of space (nuclear weapons delivery, imaging, communications, navigation, weather forecasting, etc, etc) would be hideously impracticable and expensive if men in space were part of the deal. It is deliciously ironic that that Musk hopes that the automated and miniaturized Starlink constellation will pay for his Mars settlement. Someone up thread compared a $200 million robotic arm to a $10 million spacesuit neglecting to mention the $1 billion/man-year to keep a man in space to wear the suit.

    I think the end game of the man vs. machine debate is either the former eventually becoming the latter of the latter replacing the former.

  10. Chris Stelter says:

    Jim Davis: the whole point of the New Space movement is to basically address the $1 billion/man-year factor, hoping to bring it down by 3 or 4 orders of magnitude. That’s the whole reason for a blog like this, and if that’s an impossible goal, then we should end all human spaceflight. So I take it as if it’s a possible goal and I’m finding ways to put a $1-10 million/man-year astronaut to work.

    (And even at $1 billion/man-year, if only a day of work is needed, that’s just $3 million. Much lower than these satellite service contracts would likely cost…)

  11. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    To be honest, it’s mostly water under the bridge at this point. I can’t remember many of the details. I think one of us (probably me) made a pedantic correction to one of the cynics. That cynic took it personally and did something petty in return (something like pointing out an outdated product roadmap that we hadn’t updated in years) to try to make Masten look dishonest. Long-term though, I don’t think it amounted to much. Masten isn’t dominating cislunar space yet, but it’s not like you hear much from the Space Cynics anymore either.


  12. Jim Davis says:

    “…the whole point of the New Space movement is to basically address the $1 billion/man-year factor, hoping to bring it down by 3 or 4 orders of magnitude.”

    But you see the irony here, right? Reductions of this magnitude will require comparable reductions in automation and miniaturization, which makes the robotics better and squeezes the human role in space even more.

  13. Chris Stelter says:

    Jim, that’s just not true. Automation and electronics miniaturization are just not required for cost reduction, and in fact they may be counter-productive. People always make the assumption that automation = cost reduction, but in this case, I just don’t see HOW. What’s needed for these cost reductions is reusable rocket tech, and 1980s tech is sufficient for that (although current tech helps). In fact, XCOR had a strategy of ELIMINATING computers whenever possible, even proposing a human-guided-return for both the first and second stages of their eventual orbital launch system (to be fair, I think they took “humans uber alles” a little too far). The main cost driver is the armies on the ground.

    A system architecture relying on robust design above all (see: Soyuz) may mean we can skip a lot of the steps needed today. Exercising the system regularly and iterating where possible can enable lower cost. I just don’t see how automation gets us there, and in fact may be counter-productive for cost reduction, just like Elon’s failed attempt to automate Tesla production. (Relativity’s questionable strategy of 3D printing an entire rocket also comes to mind… In my experience, 3D printing when used for serial production can actually increase labor costs.)

    Do humans even cost a lot? We don’t even know, because since almost the beginning, NASA’s human spaceflight program has been responsible for paying for the salaries of thousands of civil servants in Houston and northern Alabama, not exactly a strategy for cost reduction. …and Soviet organizational structure on the other side. I think we can do better.

  14. mike shupp says:

    Chris Stelter –

    since almost the beginning, NASA’s human spaceflight program has been responsible for paying for the salaries of thousands of civil servants in Houston and northern Alabama

    Actually part of the problem … Used to be, in science fiction novels, a handful of entrepreneurs and people on the ground supported largish crews of astronauts building and operating space stations and planetary bases, but in the real world it’s been possible to invert things. Like Arthur C. Clarke predicted, thousands of engineers now work to run communication systems that span the world, but what he didn’t foresee was that they would work in New Jersey and Surrey and Victoria instead of orbit and get into their automobiles at the end of their shifts and drive to homes in the suburbs. And because that’s “standard” corporations looking to cut costs concentrate on reducing “unusual” manned flight costs rather than “ordinary” office and payroll costs.

  15. George Turner says:


    Spaceship One would be an example of a simplification of re-entry dynamics that eliminated a lot of demanding control requirements. One recent video of Mars development that Elon liked was dependent on construction carried out by computer controlled unicycles. Sure, we can build such vehicles, but a fork truck is a better and more robust solution. When I watched the video, my thought was that the Mars settlement was coming together like magic because they’d cut all the scenes where a half dozen guys in hard hats would have to rush in and readjust things for the robots.

  16. Cynthia Markles says:

    Chris, I really like your long(er) form pieces and I think your Twitter hiatus has beneficial to your signal-to-noise ratio and the overall signal-to-noise ratio of space Twitter (you previously contributed *way* more noise than signal in my opinion – your penchant of an “idea a minute rapid fire” polluted your feed and was a net negative to the discourse in my opinion)

    How has your Twitter hiatus impacted you?

  17. bombloader says:

    It seems there’s really one big driver that makes it expensive to send humans vs automated systems into space-the cost of launch. And until SpaceX started up, no one really tried to do anything about it, except speculating that we could do something about it with yet unavailable tech. So in the mean time launch customers responded rationally, by trying to reduce the size of payloads. Not necessarily bad, but it does skew things toward automation and electronics, since humans or much of the life support for them cannot be miniaturized. OTOH, it makes it uneconomical to do things that probably won’t work well without humans present, such as orbital assembly, or missions further away than cislunar space where automated systems can’t be controlled in real time by an operator at his computer drinking coffee. An imperfect analogy would be that until recently spaceflight was like the exploration of the American west would have been if everyone though building a transcontinental railroad was impossible, so instead everyone invested heavily in trying to cleverly fit everything going west into a package that required the smallest number of horses or mules to pull it.

  18. Paul D. says:

    I suggest if you want man in space, you need to increase the number of activities in space, and in particular the number of activities at one location. The more that is being done, the harder it is to get robots to do them all, and the higher the payoff of having a crew there to fill the gaps. Even if most are done by robots, maintaining (and even improving) the robots becomes an activity in and of itself.

    So, what to do in space that requires concentrated activity at a single location?

  19. Timothy Sanders says:


    If you’re requests, I’m curious to hear your take on the effect of the Starlink satellites on the astronomy community. Sarah Horst and Doug Ellison are PISSED! I think the effect of 12,000 satellites merits a discussion, but I recall the planetary science/astronomy community getting really worked up about Starman/Roadster and Peter Beck’s short lived reflective satellite and neither being a particular issue. The social justice warrior portion of the space community is painting this as another privileged white male imposing their white male privilege on the whole world. What do you think?

  20. mike shupp says:

    Paul D —

    LIVING. Think of a small town, Farmers, a church, a grocery, a post office, probably a school, maybe an implements dealer. Think of a city. Banks and bankers, insurance agencies, computer game stores, libraries, movie theaters, symphony orchestras, art galleries and even some artists, dozens of schools and a couple of universities, a YMCA, Boy Scout troops, factories, a public bus system ….

    Put a dozen scientists in a lunar base, and they’ll maintain families on the earth in comfortable suburbs and their pay checks will regularly be dispatched to banks so faithful spouses can keep up on the house payments and health insurance and retirement plans. Put a hundred thousand people doing all sorts of NASA things in a lunar settlement, with their wives and husbands and children, and 98% of those people will be supported by the activities they provide to their neighbors.

    Too bad we can’t sell that notion to the professional defenders of Free Enterprise who rule us from Washington.

  21. gbaikie says:

    –Paul D. says:
    May 25, 2019 at 12:28 pm
    I suggest if you want man in space, you need to increase the number of activities in space, and in particular the number of activities at one location. The more that is being done, the harder it is to get robots to do them all, and the higher the payoff of having a crew there to fill the gaps. Even if most are done by robots, maintaining (and even improving) the robots becomes an activity in and of itself.

    So, what to do in space that requires concentrated activity at a single location?–

    I would say what would make the Moon a destination, rather than “requires concentrated activity at a single location”.
    And the Moon to be destination requires cheap rocket fuel.
    To get cheap rocket fuel on the Moon requires commerical lunar water mining.
    One could have government providing lunar rocket fuel- but it would a scam and it doesn’t work.
    Cheap lunar rocket fuel is low cost rocket fuel AND a future of even cheaper lunar rocket fuel- and this where a governmental scam doesn’t work. the short term future of having even cheaper rocket fuel, drives it.
    Lunar rocket fuel which is cheap is needed to make the Moon a destination.
    The other side of it, is making earth launch cheaper.
    I would say making lunar rocket fuel cheaper is faster than making Earth launch cheaper. And making Lunar rocket fuel cheaper, is something NASA can do.
    NASA can do this, by exploring the Lunar polar.
    Of course any entity could explore the lunar polar region, but the reason we have NASA is to do such things as exploring the lunar polar regions to determine if commerical lunar water is possible. NASA is not doing this, obviously, but NASA should done this decades ago, if it wasn’t a disfunctional government agency. But NASA is not the only disfunctional government agency or dept- NASA is normal or maybe better than normal as compared to how government normally functions. Or NASA is not doing a huge amount damage, as compared to say the State Dept. Or there no way anyone could claim that the State Dept or say the Energy Dept is not doing a huge amount damage as compared to what a public could expect from these government activities.
    So it might be highly optimistic that NASA could actually do it’s job, but it could do it’s job, and it could be a lot good, if it did. And it’s fairly simple for NASA to do it’s job as compared to all the other dysfunctional and corrupt governmental bodies.
    NASA has big advantage, NASA is suppose to inform Congress of what Congress should support in terms of space exploration. NASA is similar to US military in this regard.
    Unfortunately, NASA has bad track record, doing this.
    Anyhow, NASA should explore the lunar polar region and if successful, it can then explore Mars.
    NASA should explore Mars to determine if Mars has viable regions would could be human settlements.
    One thing needed for Mars settlement is cheap Mars water.
    Cheap Mars water is much cheaper than the lunar water. Mars water has to be somewhat close to the price of water on Earth. Mainly as cheap as earth water in terms of the future, rather than immediately. And only way this possible is if talking about fairly large amounts of water. And Mars settlements will be using a lot of water.
    In terms per thousand people, Martians “should be” thought to be using more water per person as compared to the average US citizen.
    So US use about 600 billion tons [cubic meters] of water per year, or about 2000 tons per year. Or 1000 martian should use about 2 million tons [cubic meters] of water per year. Or basically a mars settlement needs access to cheap water which total billions of tons.
    With moon a mining site needs about 100,000 tons and Mars site needs +1,000,000, 000 tons.
    A lunar mining site is temporary, a decade or two, a Mars settlement site is permanent, +100 years.
    A lunar water mining site is about 1 square km, and Mars settlement site is +1000 of square km. Lunar water can equal to damp dirt, Mars water could nearly pure frozen ice or pumpable ground water.

    Earth is water planet, though most of water is saltwater, but saltwater is evaporated by sunlight, and it rains a lot in most the land areas. Even with modern technology saltwater is difficult to use. If all Mars has is saltwater, it would serious problem regarding whether or not the water is cheap enough [though saltwater on Moon is not a problem in terms of having access to cheap lunar water].
    But I think in some circumstances liquid saltwater on Mars could be better than fresh water which is frozen.

    Anyhow cheap lunar water is about $500 per kg [1/2 million per ton] and in couple decades be $100 per kg.
    Mars water for settlement should be about $10 per kg [$10,000 per ton- or more important less than $10 billion dollars per million ton within first couple decades.
    Or much less than 10 trillion dollar for 1 billion ton or Lunar water might end up costing less than 10 trillion dollar for 1 billion tons of lunar water mined.
    In 100 years it unlikely 1 billion tons of lunar water will be mined, and almost required that Mars settlements within 100 years use more than 1 billion tonnes.
    So in terms of near future, martian water should be closer to $1 per kg or more than earth bottled water and hundred times more than than typical tap water.
    So if you buy 1 billion tonnes of Mars water for 1 billion dollars, that a good price in the near term. Merely finding 1 billion tons of mars water could be worth 1/2 billion dollars per billion tons found. And possible 1/2 trillion tons of Mars water is something which could be found. Or there is probably trillions of tons of Mars water, but up to 1/2 trillion could “minable” or “of interest”/value in near term.
    So, NASA job is not to find all usable mars water, but rather is there any usable, or the degree this is the case. Or is vaguely possible that private exploration of Mars is possible to find it. This is rather difficult to do. And NASA exploring the polar region of the Moon is a lot easier.
    A large part of NASA exploration of Mars will negative rather than positive- looking for problems or dangers related to possible future Mars settlements. Or if NASA can reduce future deaths, that good thing for a government to do.

  22. Andrew_Swallow says:

    The easiest thing the US Government can do to develop the Moon is license landing pads. Include a clause allowing a launch pad with flame trench to be added.

    Since there is a high risk of hitting a rock when landing on Moon some people will reduce risk by landing on an official landing pad. The firm will probably add infrastructure to its space port such as cranes to unload the landers, bulldozers to level the ground, homing beacons and possibly a terminal building.

  23. whitelaughter says:

    The major disadvantage of using humans is the risk of death – Beresheet crashing on the Moon hasn’t stopped the Israelis, instead they can take pride in what they’ve achieved; but a manned mission being wiped out? That’s political suicide.
    Never mind that we lose thousands on the road.

    This is one of the reasons the Moon as a retirement home is so tempting: we’d be going there to die anyway. “Six months before granddad was due to die of cancer, he collided with the Moon” is still a loss, but it is one the grandkids will tell with pride.

    Realistically, we should be incredibly careful of our lives when young, but cheerfully accept more risks as we age, simply because we have less to lose.

  24. johnhare john hare says:

    When I turned on my computer this morning, one of the headlines was that the 11th person to die on Everest this year was American. I personally don’t see value in climbing Everest in the first place, but it is their choice to risk death. Spaceflight should be the same.

  25. George Turner says:

    Well, like spaceflight, climbing Everest would be a whole lot easier with mass market pressurized space suits using LOX instead of compressed O2 bottles. A person in one of those would be like Superman up there compared to all the wheezing, panting, and freezing climbers clinging to the edge of life.

    Getting back to the difference in automation between the Soviet and US programs, last night’s episode of Chernobyl showed how the Russians started out with robots for cleaning the reactor room’s roof, including their backup lunar rover. They even tried a West German robot, but no robots could take the intense radiation. So in desperation they used a soldiers who ran out for 90 seconds, threw some debris over the side, and then retired from nuclear clean up for life.

    The show also reminds me that we’re only playing outside the Van Allen Belt until we build stations that can take an X-class solar flare without endangering the occupants, because the number of potential fatalities outside the Van Allen belt in just one event is equal to the number of unshielded astronauts outside the Van Allen belt.

  26. Chris Stelter says:

    Cynthia Markles: Welp, you’re probably right about signal vs. noise.

    My hiatus is probably helping, but I’m starting to find other outlets for my non-productivity.

  27. whitelaughter says:

    John Hare: climbing Everest isn’t dependent on large amounts of govt/commercial funding; if you get killed you aren’t damaging anyone’s ‘brand’.
    Agreed that climbing Everest is pointless; space exploration increase our knowledge/capabilities in a fashion that repeating someone else’s climbing feats does not; but we aren’t the people that politicians/CEOs need to worry about.

    *However*, once there are 1000s of people in space, there will be a more balanced view of the risks – particularly is people are used to the idea that most people dying in space are doing so of old age/incurable diseases.

  28. whitelaughter says:

    gbaikie – while I’d love it if we could strike closer to Mercury, how would you compensate for the insane speed of that planet?

    Messenger used multiple gravitational assists to get there; the 1st three, off Venus, all returned to Earth, so you could have a spacecraft do the 1st few unmanned and then send the crew…but then they are onboard for years for the next 4 assists Venus/Mercury (that does mean that they could control delicate situations with probes to Venus).

    Or is it possible to have a permanent space base that loops from Earth to Mercury continually, so that we only have to get the astronauts up to speed, to dock with the base?

  29. gbaikie says:

    –whitelaughter says:
    June 1, 2019 at 12:13 am
    gbaikie – while I’d love it if we could strike closer to Mercury, how would you compensate for the insane speed of that planet?–
    Orbital speed of planets:
    Mean orbital velocity (km/s) 47.36
    Max. orbital velocity (km/s) 58.98
    Min. orbital velocity (km/s) 38.86
    Mercury has fairly high elliptical orbit:
    Orbit eccentricity 0.2056
    vs Earth’s: 0.0167
    But problem of getting to Mercury is it’s inclination:
    Orbit inclination (deg) 7.00

    –Messenger used multiple gravitational assists to get there; the 1st three, off Venus, all returned to Earth, so you could have a spacecraft do the 1st few unmanned and then send the crew…but then they are onboard for years for the next 4 assists Venus/Mercury (that does mean that they could control delicate situations with probes to Venus).–
    Yes, that was done [mainly] because of the difference of Mercury inclination.
    Can you do anything other than using gravity assist to alter and match Mercury’s inclination?
    The simple answer is you just use more delta-v, but we always trying minimize the amount of delta-v used- Messenger used small amount delta-v to get into Mercury’s orbit. I am sure exactly but somewhere within the range used to get into the orbit of Mars- but it took forever to get there.
    With simple hohmann transfer, Mars is about 240 days, and Mercury is about 105 days, but takes huge amount delta-v to change the inclination.
    What can give you a lot of delta-v is ion engine.
    Another aspect is that landing on Mercury might be quite different than trying to go into a Mercury orbit.
    It sort of similar problem as getting to Earth’s quasi moons- they also are at different inclination relative to Earth. What if you had quasi moon of Mercury which had different inclination to Mercury and easier inclination to get to relative to Earth?
    But anyhow Mercury distance from Sun, is not particular hard to get to, but the difference of inclination has it’s problems. But a problem solvable if got lot of delta-v to use- ion or lots chemical rocket power.
    Now I think getting to Mercury from the Moon rather than from Earth. And from the Moon, one has huge advantage delta-v wise as compared to leaving from Earth.
    And if you “operating from the Moon” or could be using Nuclear Orions- which basically don’t have delta-v problem. Or the Nuclear Orion problem is leaving earth surface and causing radioactive waste, and essentially, it is a non problem with the Moon.
    But before one gets nuclear orions on the Moon, one could have rocket fuel being made on the Moon and/or one could use ion rockets.

    –Or is it possible to have a permanent space base that loops from Earth to Mercury continually, so that we only have to get the astronauts up to speed, to dock with the base?–
    Well yeah, from Earth distance to Mercury distance, but still have the inclination problem.
    Or zero inclination Earth to zero inclination Mercury distance, travel time 105 days or a year of about 210 days. But one could want them to syn up so the planets are close at the destination points. Gravity wells are useful, but less needed or useful if using ion engine- or any low thrust engine which don’t really “do” hohmann type transfers. Or if use a chemical rocket [high thrust], you want to burn near a gravity well.

    So if using ion engines from the space base [or cycler- see Mars cycler] to get to Mercury or Earth, one might not need to syn them up “as much” though travel time from planet Earth and planet Mercury might be, say, + 50 days added to 105 days.

    But generally speaking, I think in terms of human travel, one should use brute force of chemical rockets and get to Mercury, fast- 105 days. And cargo can do gravity assist a slow path, maybe not slow as Messenger did [use ion and use more delta-v]

  30. Paul451 says:


    “My personal conclusion was that humans remain superior to robots in
    a) Skylab = fixing broken things in orbit

    This reasoning only holds it the cost of flying humans is less than the cost of the simply replacing the hardware you are fixing.

    For eg, each Hubble servicing missions (if priced at the average program costs for the STS) cost more than the construction cost of Hubble. Each cost as much as a flagship science mission (at the time.)

    “b) Apollo 15 – 16 – 17: geology (the orange soil and genesis rock)

    In spite of the name, “robots” aren’t autonomous. Humans on the ground are capable of recognising odd geology as much as humans on-site. MERs/MSL did this routinely, after all.

    So again, this only makes sense when it’s cheaper to fly humans than build robots.

    Everything depends on getting the price of humans in space below the price of bespoke robotic hardware.

  31. gbaikie says:

    –So again, this only makes sense when it’s cheaper to fly humans than build robots.–
    At moment it’s cheaper to fly humans.

    –Everything depends on getting the price of humans in space below the price of bespoke robotic hardware.–
    One simply uses more robotic and you want to make robotic much cheaper than it is now, and this very doable.

    So I would do a manned lunar exploration program, and have 1/2 the budget being robotic.
    With lunar program I would go hard improving and increasing amount of robotic missions, and this would continue with Mars exploration program. Or Mars exploration program would use a lot of robotic mission, like 10 times more than we currently do in regards to Mars [at least 10 times more].

    And would say with future lunar water mining, you going have operation mostly robotic, but doing it solely using robotic is a bad idea.
    Or most people working on the Moon, will be doing teleoperation, or most will living on Earth while working on the Moon. But there will be some human on moon working on the Moon.
    Or on Earth you have teleoperation mining, but don’t have no people at the mining site.
    Or try to use a lot teleoperation in your mining operation, but stupid to not also have people at the mining sites.
    Likewise, if time delay of Mars were solved, one would still send humans to Mars to explore Mars. But humans at mars should have lots of robotic activity they can control when at Mars due to speed of light limitation, but you also still have lots of people on Earth who overcome the problems of speed of light limitation, involved in operating robots on Mars.

    And you don’t even consider the Moon, unless one can make lunar rocket fuel, and if making lunar rocket fuel, one will over time make cheaper rocket fuel. And if had cheap lunar rocket, then more people are going to travel to moon. Or going to the moon will cost a lot less.
    But even at the high cost, it is worth sending some people to the Moon. But as general rule, with human going to Moon for exploration, when humans return to Earth, they also should return with lunar sample. Or crew going to Moon vs robotic sample return will not much difference in costs.
    Or you want lunar sample returns and so you want human crew gong to the Moon- for that reason and other reasons.

  32. gbaikie says:

    I wanted to talk more about:
    –gbaikie – while I’d love it if we could strike closer to Mercury, how would you compensate for the insane speed of that planet?–

    If you do hohmann transfer to Mercury from Venus, Earth, or Mars, you end up going faster than than the “insane speed of that planet”.
    And a hohmann transfer from Mercury to Venus, Earth, or Mars will arrive at slower speed than any of those planets.

    It costs more delta-v to get a solar system escape velocity from Mercury as compare to from Earth or Mars. Though I am not including the Oberth effect adding to the delta-v:
    Or other things one do.

    So solar escape :
    From Mercury: ~ 67.7 km/sec
    And if I assume they mean average mercury velocity: 47.36 km/sec, then
    67.7 – 47.36 = 20,34 km/sec
    So need a delta-v of 20,34 km/sec added to Mercury’s velocity to leave our solar system.
    But as said that doesn’t include the Oberth effect, nor any gravity assist one easily use leaving Mercury to escape our solar system.
    Mercury would be best planet to leave in order to escape our solar system.
    But as comparison with Earth solar escape is: 42.1 km/sec
    And average Earth orbital velocity is 29.78 km/sec
    42.1 – 29.78 km = 12.32 km/sec
    Difference being 20.34 – 12.32 = 8.02 km/sec
    Mars solar escape is 34.1 km/sec
    Mars velocity average is 24.07
    34.1 km/sec – 24.07 is 10.03 km/sec
    Or Mars has about 2.3 km/sec less escape velocity than Earth AND it would not make much sense to go to Mars from Earth in order to to reach solar escape velocity requiring less delta-v.
    For a number reasons it doesn’t work.
    One reason is you have spend about 1 km/sec getting to Mars, it takes 8 months and it’s limited launch window. One could flyby Mars and get gravity assist, but it’s small and low velocity planet. It might be worth it, if Mars was in right spot, but my wild guess is it add 1 km/sec or less. Or instead 12.32 km/sec it might only cost about 11.5 km/sec. Or if you had to choose between using Jupiter for a gravity assist vs Mars, you would always take Jupiter.
    But as general matter, Mars is bad place to get to Jupiter and beyond.
    With Mercury you have two choices, Venus and Earth. And you could gravity assist off both of them. And without considering that you have the Oberth effect.

    Without considering gravity assists or Oberth effect Mercury is good location to get to any planet, because travel a shorter distance. And because travel a shorter distance you get there faster.
    Mercury is shorter distance in terms planetary trajectories to Venus, than compared to any other planet. And also Mercury travels shorter distance to Earth [compared to from Venus or Mars]. And shorter distant to Mars than from any other planet. Shorter distance to Jupiter [and etc].
    What could be better is a rock closer to the Sun than Mercury.
    But since Mercury is big rock with a gravity well, having a stronger gravity well is advantage as compared to a small rock [say less than 100 km in diameter].
    A planet can have disadvantage if leaving the surface due to having a gravity loss.
    Earth’s gravity loss is typically about 1.5 km/sec.
    Mars and Mercury would be about .5 km/sec [or less- and Mercury could be less than Mars]. Our Moon is about .1 km/sec of gravity loss.
    And our Moon has advantage because it’s close to Earth’s large gravity well [which can be used in regards to the Oberth effect.

  33. gbaikie says:

    Re: I said:
    “Or crew going to Moon vs robotic sample return will not much difference in costs.”

    “Moon rocks on Earth come from three sources: those collected by the United States Apollo program manned lunar landings from 1969 to 1972; samples returned by three Soviet Luna programme unmanned probes in the 1970s; and rocks that were ejected naturally from the lunar surface before falling to Earth as lunar meteorites. ”
    “The Apollo missions collected 2,200 samples weighing 382 kilograms (842 lb).[1] Three Luna spacecraft returned with 301 grams (10.6 oz) of samples.”

    So the 6 Apollo got 10 times more Luna material than the 3 Russia robotic missions.
    And I would say Apollo got better samples in addition to simply getting more of them.
    And leaving aside the fact they are more valuable scientifically, human collecting a moon rock is a more valuable moon rock. Simply because some baseball cards are worth more than other baseball cards.
    And there is more value to get more because one afford use up the lunar material and using up the material, probably results in more know about the the material. Or greater access to material adds value.
    Though there is the value rarity- or scarcity will drive prices higher. I call this a pseudo value, which gets “wiped out” more easily by abundance.
    Wiki, again:
    “In 1993, three small fragments from Luna 16, weighing 200 mg, were sold for US$ 442,500.”
    So the $442.500 for .2 gram would lower significantly if more Russian mission brought back lunar sample returns. Or if more of Russian samples were sold.
    It doubtful that one could sell lunar material for $100,000 per gram.
    But if limited, one might be able to sell lunar material for about $100 per gram [or twice the price of gold].
    So 1 million grams at $100 per gram and only this amount for next century is what I mean by limited.
    Anyways, the russian got about 1/10th the amount lunar material, did the Russian program costs 1/10th the cost of sending 12 astronauts to the Moon.
    If it didn’t, obviously, robotic missions are more expensive than manned missions,

    Now launch costs has lowered since those times and robotics are better and cheaper.
    And human labor has dramatically increased in cost/price.
    So rather than 1/10th the cost, can robotic missions do it at 1/100th or 1/1000th of the cost.
    Or to lower cost one have robotic mission bring back 10 times as much mass, or 1000 times more mass as the Russian missions.
    Though human missions could also bring back more than Apollo mission did, or crew mission could bring back as much lunar sample as the 6 lunar landings did. One use same hardware and not bring a rover or bring one crew to surface rather than two crew. Or different way to say it, was the lunar landing were about, more than just bring back lunar samples, unlike the Russian robotic missions.

    Anyhow, I think it’s more profitable to send humans to lunar surface, if you want to bring back lunar samples and sell the lunar material.
    You would have biggest media event, ever. Though sending a robotic mission would also be news worthy.
    I think human picking up lunar rock, make the rock worth more. And it could even have more value in terms of scientific value.
    Now, if we had robots like movie, I Robot. Sending those robots could make all the robots made on Earth worth more. So that could trump sending a human.
    But if we had niffy dwarf size spacesuits, and a dwarf [or height challenged person] that might trump the I Robot.
    Though it would make a difference who the height challenged person was or who they became by going to the Moon.

  34. gbaikie says:

    “So the 6 Apollo got 10 times more…”
    Oops, I mean a thousand times more.

  35. George Turner says:

    Well, that gets back to my idea of faster and cheaper lunar access by launching a scaled-down Orion sized for Peter Dinklage, but if the program is successful it might create stereotypes about lunar miners being really short.

    But we can get some pretty good design numbers from Apollo. Short version: Using lunar orbit rendezvous, using cryogenics for TLI and hypergolics for the rest, if you can get about half the ascent module’s dry mass to be moon rocks (in addition to Apollo 17’s fraction for rocks and astronauts), you could return close to 3,000 lbs of rock for the 300,000 lb LEO starting weight for the Apollo mission. So the potential return is about 1% of the LEO payload.

    You might get half that or twice that, using cryogenics for subsequent stages (like Blue Origin’s lander), but that’s a pretty good ballpark figure for figuring up launch cost versus pounds of moon rock. So moon rock would cost, at a minimum (free upper stage for TLI, free lander, free CSM), one hundred times the LEO launch cost. For a Falcon Heavy at about $640/lb LEO, that would convert to $64,000/lb for moon rocks, or $4,000 an ounce. But to justify a mission you’d need to find customers willing to shell out $90 million for the 1,400 lbs you bring back, plus however much the upper stages, flight vehicle, and lander cost.

    It sounds like a pretty dubious investment, especially since flying the mission would signal the market that moon rocks are going to get cheap.

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