The Way Forward
Towards meaningful progress in spaceflight
Following my criticisms of the space plans of the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, it’s heartening to read an interview with a man who has his plans clearly set on the right track.
By the “right” track I mean a trajectory leading towards the sustainable growth and progress of civilisation into the Solar System, with all that implies for the long-term security and further unfolding of our human heritage. By the “wrong” track I mean spaceflight regarded as a specialist monopoly hobby of rich governments, sending small numbers of machines and astronauts on occasional high-cost exploration missions in the service of science, prestige, spinoff and “inspiration”, but producing no permanent, let alone growth-capable, extraterrestrial infrastructure.
For the progressive view, read Alan Boyle’s interview with Jeff Bezos at the 32nd Space Symposium, reported on GeekWire. Key points, in Bezos’s own words:
- “I want to see the kind of explosive growth [in the space industry] that we’ve seen on the Internet with all of the entrepreneurship and dynamism”
- “I can tell you why it happened. If you think about e-commerce, all of the heavy lifting was already done. We had all these big pieces of infrastructure in place.”
- “If you want to see a dynamic golden age with entrepreneurial energy where thousands of entrepreneurs could be doing amazing things in space, we can’t do that. We haven’t seen that in 50 years, and the reason we haven’t seen it is because the big heavy lifting pieces are not yet in place.”
- “This is Blue Origin’s mission. Our mission is to try and put in place some of that heavy lifting infrastructure: Make access to space at much lower cost so that thousands of entrepreneurs can do amazing and interesting things, and take us into the next era.”
- “We humans don’t get great at things we do a dozen times a year. The most used launch vehicles fly a dozen times a year. That’s just not enough to get great at it.”
- “Great industries are usually built by not just one, or two or three companies, but usually by dozens of companies. There can be many winners, even hundreds and thousands of companies in a truly great industry. I think that’s what we are headed toward here.”
- “You could say that space tourism might be the books equivalent [a killer app for Amazon] for Blue Origin. We are working on an orbital vehicle now.”
- “I want us to be a spacefaring civilization. […] I think we need to explore and utilize space in order to save the Earth. […] this planet is pretty good for us, and it’s pretty unique in the solar system and we need to keep it safe.”
- “I think we want to continue to progress our civilization, and to do that, we need to continue to progress our energy usage. […] Of course that’s completely impractical, so we are going to go into space. We need to do so, in order to continue to grow our civilization and at the same time keep this jewel of a planet the way it is. […] Earth can eventually be zoned residential and light industry, and we can move all of our heavy industry off planet where it belongs, where it has easy access to solar power and other forms of energy.”
Meanwhile an insider’s view on the relationship between OldSpace and NewSpace can be found in Lori Garver’s contribution to a recent discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations, reported on ArsTechnica. Note especially:
- “NASA was a very symbol of capitalist ideals when we went to the Moon and beat the Russians,” she said. “Now what we’re working with is more of a socialist plan for space exploration, which is just anathema to what this country should be doing. Don’t try to compete with the private sector. Incentivize them by driving technologies that will be necessary for us as we explore further.”
But wasn’t Apollo already a state socialist solution to the problem of getting to the Moon? Given the size of the problem, that was clearly the only solution available at the time, but, once the precedent had been set, a change of course to an entrepreneurial approach was difficult enough to have taken 40 years to get underway.
A scenario for progress
I presented a scenario for progressing into the Solar System and growing ultimately into an interstellar civilisation in October 2012. A reminder of key steps needed in the next 20 years or so:
- Government space agencies explore low Earth orbit and establish an outpost there. – This is now complete!
- Based on the exploration in step 1, private enterprise now markets low Earth orbit for commercial passenger spaceflight, dominated by space tourism but also featuring commercial space manufacturing and university-funded science, and creates a growing, economically self-sustaining low Earth orbit infrastructure. – Now just beginning. Expect this phase to unfold during the 2020s, with ultimately thousands of passengers flying to orbit and back every week.
- As low Earth orbit becomes more populated and costs of access fall, a market will appear for lunar flyby trips. These are satisfied by adapting existing space hotel designs for injection into Earth-Moon cycler orbits, thus ensuring that full solar flare protection, repair facilities and buffers of consumables can be built up in cislunar space. – Late 2020s to 2030s.
- The growing space hotel system and the demand for translunar propellants create a large-scale market for volatiles, especially water, in orbit which can be satisfied by robotic mining of the near-Earth asteroids. Again, government exploration, in this case robotic asteroid exploration, is needed now to develop the technologies towards eventual commercial sustainability. – 2030s to 2040s.
An initial traffic level on the order of 10,000 fare-paying passengers to and from low Earth orbit every year, thus 40 every working day of the week worldwide, should be seen as a rough guide to a fully sustainable, permanent industry, capable of further growth without any need for government subsidy. (The current level is 12 astronauts/year, or 15 when the Chinese bother to launch, all of whom are government specialists – see last month’s graphs.)
With the levels of production and maturity of space hardware resulting from daily passenger flights to multiple space hotels and laboratories, the next phase of manned exploration of the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, and setting up of settlements there, will be a vastly easier problem to solve.
Note also the interesting prospect of having international political meetings into space, as I discussed two years ago.
Just as NASA did not have to invent the aircraft in order to ferry its Apollo astronauts between Houston and Florida, so it should not find itself building special, government-only spacecraft to get around the Earth-Moon system when it starts on its “Journey to Mars”.
Elon Musk and Mars
Of course NASA isn’t the only one with its eyes on Mars. What are we to make of Elon Musk’s announcement a few days ago that SpaceX was almost ready to start sending Dragon spacecraft to land there?
(See reports in Wired and Time magazines. More links and comment from Rand Simberg here, here and here.)
I suggest that what applies to NASA also applies to SpaceX (and to the Russian, Chinese and European space agencies). Namely:
- The company has the technology, so certainly they could land Red Dragon on Mars (note particularly the point about supersonic retropropulsion here).
- A NASA–SpaceX collaboration to send astronauts to Mars would certainly have far better chances of success than a NASA-only programme based on the SLS rocket. Note how the Falcon/Dragon architecture is primarily for commercial purposes, so a Mars programme which uses it has an experience base to work from, and production and launch cadences growing to better than once a month, which is not the case with specialist single-use vehicles on high-cost, low-frequency exploration missions.
- So long as the exploration use of the vehicles constitutes a small fraction of their overall use for profit-making purposes, the Mars programme could well continue to be sustainable. The costs of keeping the vehicles in production are borne by the wider economy, not by a single government programme.
- But a permanent colony on Mars is a different order of difficulty altogether, because of the near-complete lack of experience in supporting human life outside Earth’s biosphere. Note the experience of the Biosphere 2 project, in the words of Jane Poynter, one of the biospherians: “After thirteen months in Biosphere 2, we were starving, suffocating, and going quite mad” (The Human Experiment, p.245). The step from sortie missions, carrying rations pre-packed on Earth, to colonisation, based on permanent, self-sufficient local agriculture, is nowhere near ready to be taken yet. (See point (4) of the Astronist Mars Strategy.)
So while we can look forward to new and more realistic hopes for astronaut exploration of Mars in 10 to 20 years time, those of us interested in permanent colonisation must not skimp the preparation that is needed on Earth first!
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