November 17, 2012
Space missions are commonly thought of as the ultimate in “high tech.” After all, rockets blast off into the wild blue yonder, accelerate their payloads to hypersonic and orbital speeds and then operate in zero gravity in the ice-cold, black sky of space. It requires our best technology to pull off this modern miracle and even then, things can go wrong. Why would anyone believe that with high technology, sometimes less can be more – that we’re missing a bet by not utilizing current technology. Like the intellectual tug of war involving man vs. machine, there also is a tug of war between proven technology and high-tech. Creating these barriers and distinctions is nonsensical. We need it all. And we can have it all.
Point in question – in situ resource utilization (ISRU), which is the general term given to the concept of learning how to use the materials and energy we find in space. The idea of learning how to “live off the land” in space has been around for a long, long time. Countless papers have been written discussing the theory and practice of this operational approach. Yet to date, the only resource we have actually used in space is the conversion of sunlight into electricity via arrays of photovoltaic cells. Such power generation is clearly “mature” from a technical viewpoint, but it had to be demonstrated in actual spaceflight before it became considered as such (the earliest satellites were powered by batteries).
The reason we have not used ISRU is because we’ve spent the last 30 years in low Earth orbit, without access to the material resources of space. Many ideas have been proposed to use the material resources of the Moon. A big advantage of doing so is that much less mass needs to be transported from Earth. The propellant needed to transport a unit of mass from the Earth to the Moon keeps us hobbled to the tyranny of the rocket equation – a constant roadblock to progress. If it takes several thousand dollars to launch one pound into Earth orbit, multiply that amount times ten to get the cost to put a pound of mass on the Moon.
In the space business, new technologies tend to be viewed with a jaundiced eye. Aerospace engineers in particular are typically very conservative when it comes to integrating new technology into spacecraft and mission designs, largely on the basis that if we are not careful, missions can fail in a spectacularly dreadful fashion. To determine if a technology is ready for prime time, NASA developed the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, a nine-step list of criteria that managers use to evaluate and classify how mature a technical concept is and whether the new technology is mission ready.
Resource utilization has a very low TRL level – usually TRL 4 or lower. Thus, many engineers don’t think of ISRU as a viable technique to implement on a real mission. It seems too “far out” (more science fiction than science). Believing that a technology is too immature for use can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a “Catch-22” for spaceflight: a technology is too immature for flight because it’s never flown and it’s never flown because it’s too immature. This prejudice is widespread among many “old hands” in the space business, who wield TRL quite effectively in order to keep new and innovative ideas stuffed in the closet and off flight manifests.
In truth, the idea that the processing and use of off-planet resources is “high technology” is exactly backwards – most of the ideas proposed for ISRU are some of the simplest and oldest technologies known to man. One of the first ideas advanced for using resources on the Moon involve building things out of bulk regolith (rocks and soil of the lunar surface). This is certainly not high-tech; the use of building aggregate dates back to ancient times, reaching a high level of sophistication under the Romans, who over 2000 years ago built what is still the largest free-supported concrete dome in the world (the Pantheon). The Coliseum was made of concrete faced by marble. The Romans also built a complex network of roads, some which remain in use to this day; paving and grading is one of the oldest and most straightforward technologies known. Odd as it may seem, sand and gravel building material is the largest source of wealth from a terrestrial resource – the biggest economic material resource on Earth.
Recently, interest has focused on the harvesting and use of water, found as ice deposits, at the poles of the Moon. Digging up ice-laden soil and heating it to extract water is very old, dating back to at least prehistoric times. This water could contain other substances, including possibly toxic amounts of some exotic elements, such as silver and mercury. No problem – we understand fractional distillation, a medieval separation technique based on the differing boiling temperatures of various substances. Again, this concept is not particularly high-tech as only a heater and a cooling column is needed (basically the configuration of an oil refinery). Some workers have suggested that lunar regolith could be mined for metals, which can then be used to manufacture both large construction pieces and complex equipment. Extracting metal from rocks and minerals is likewise very old, developed by the ancients and simply improved in efficiency over time. Processes like carbothermal reduction have been used for hundreds of years. The reactions and yields are well known, and the machinery needed to create a processing stream is simple and easy to operate.
In short, the means needed to extract and use the material wealth of the Moon and other extraterrestrial bodies is technology that is centuries old. Even advanced chemical processing was largely completely developed by the 19th Century in both Europe and America. The “new” aspects of ISRU technology revolve around the use of computers to control and regulate the processing stream. Such control is already used in many industries on Earth, including the new and potentially revolutionary technique of three-dimensional printing. A key aspect of the old “Faster-Cheaper-Better” idea (one NASA never really embraced) was to push the envelope by relying more on “off-the-wall” ideas, whereby more innovation on more flights would lead to greater capability over time.
Nothing that we plan to do on the Moon involves magic, alchemy or extremely high technology. Like most new fields of endeavor, we can start small and build capability over time. The TRL concept was designed as a guideline. It was not intended as a weapon eliminating possibly game-changing techniques from consideration or to carve out funding territories. Attitudes toward TRL must change at all levels, from the lowly subsystem to the complete, end-to-end architectural plan. A critical first step toward true space utilization and for understanding and controlling our destiny there is to recognize and take advantage of the leverage one gets from lunar (and in time planetary) resource utilization.
September 8, 2012
Rick Tumlinson of the Space Frontier Foundation published a “free-enterprise” critique of the Republican platform in regard to the American civil space program. Indeed, the text of the space plank is vague (no doubt intentionally, so as to give the candidate maximum flexibility to structure the space program to align with his vision and goals for the country). But what I found most interesting was the underlying premise and assumptions in Tumlinson’s article, a worldview that I find striking.
In brief, Tumlinson approves of the current administration’s direction for our civil space program. The U.S. has stepped back from pushing toward the Moon, Mars and beyond and redirected NASA on a quest for “game-changing” technologies (to make spaceflight easier and less costly), while simultaneously transitioning launch to low Earth orbit (LEO) operations to private “commercial space” companies selected by our government to compete for research and development funding and contracts. Many see this as gutting NASA and the U.S. national space program. To be clear, the term “commercial space” in this context does not refer to the long-established commercial aerospace industry (e.g., Lockheed-Martin, Boeing) but to a collection of startup companies dubbed “New Space” (typically, companies founded by internet billionaires who have spoken much and often about lofty space plans, but have actually flown in space very little).
Tumlinson criticizes the Republican space plank because it does not explicitly declare that a new administration would continue the current policy. In his view, the very idea of a federal government space program, including a NASA-developed and operated launch and flight system, is a throwback to 1960’s Cold War thinking. Instead, he envisions space as a field for new, flexible and innovative companies, untainted by stodgy engineering traditions or bloated bureaucracy. Many space advocates on the web hold this viewpoint – “If only government would get out of the way and give New Space a chance, there will be a renaissance in space travel!” But travel to where? And why?
The idea that LEO flight operations should be transitioned to the commercial sector is not new. It was a recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission report on implementing the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). NASA itself started the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program (COTS) in 2006, designed to nurture a nascent spaceflight industry by offering subsidies to companies to develop and fly vehicles that could provision and exchange crew aboard the International Space Station. That effort was envisioned as an adjunct to – not a replacement of – federal government spaceflight capability.
The termination of the VSE and the announcement of the “new direction” in space received high cover from the 2009 Augustine committee report, which concluded that the current “program of record” (e.g., Constellation) was unaffordable. The Augustine Committee received presentations with options to reconfigure Constellation whereby America could have returned to the Moon (to learn how to use resources found in space) under the existing budgetary cap, but they elected to start from first principles. Hence, we have something called Flexible Path, which doesn’t set a destination or a mission but calls on us “to develop technology” to go anywhere (unspecified) sometime in the future (also unspecified). With target dates of 2025 for a “possible” human mission to a near-Earth asteroid and a trip to Mars “sometime in the 2030’s,” timelines and milestones for the Flexible Path offer no clarity or purpose. Try getting a loan or finding investors using a “flexible” business plan.
Tumlinson argues that both political parties should embrace this new direction because New Space will create greater capability for lower cost sooner. He also makes much about the philosophical inclinations of the Republican Party (the “conservative” major party in American politics) – Why don’t the Republicans support free enterprise in space? Why are they putting obstacles in the way of all these new trailblazing entrepreneurs? As to those obstacles, it is unclear exactly what they are. True enough, there are regulatory and liability issues with private launch services, but not of such magnitude that they cannot be handled through the traditional means of indemnification (e.g., launch insurance).
The COTS program record of the past decade largely has not been a contract let for services, but a government grant for the technical development of launch vehicles and spacecraft. Close reading reveals the real issue: Tumlinson wants more of NASA’s shrinking budget to finance New Space companies. He is concerned that a new administration might cut off this flow of funding. However, what will cut off the flow of funding is having no market, no direction, and no architectural commitment – regardless of who occupies the White House.
The belief of many New Space advocates is that once they are established to supply and crew the ISS, abundant and robust private commercial markets will emerge for their transportation services. Although many possible services are envisioned, space tourism is the activity most often mentioned. Whether such a market emerges is problematic. Although Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has a back-listed manifest of dozens of people desiring a suborbital thrill ride (at a cost of a few hundred thousand dollars), those journeys are infinitely more affordable than a possible orbital trek (which will cost several tens of millions of dollars, at least initially). Nevertheless, there will no doubt be takers for a ticket. But what will happen to a commercial space tourism market after the first fatal accident? New Space advocates often tout their indifference to danger, but such bravado is neither a common nor wise attitude in today’s lawsuit-happy society (not to mention, the inevitable loss of confidence from a limited customer base). My opinion is that after the first major accident with loss of life, a nascent space tourism industry will become immersed in an avalanche of litigation and will probably fully or partly collapse under the ensuing financial burden. We are no longer the barnstorming America of the 1920’s and spaceflight is much more difficult than aviation.
Despite labeling themselves “free marketers,” New Space (in its current configuration) looks no different than any other contractor furiously lobbying for government sponsorship through continuation of its subsidies. True free-market capitalists do not seek government funding to develop a product. Rather, they devise an answer to an unmet need, identify a market, seek investors and invest their own capital, provide a product or service and only remain viable by making a profit through the sale of their goods and services.
Tumlinson bemoans the attitude of some politicians, ascribing venal and petty motives as to why they do not fully embrace the administration’s new direction, e.g., the oft-thrown label “space pork” to describe support for NASA’s Space Launch System. In regard to New Space companies, Tumlinson asserts that, “[We] have to both give them a chance and get out of the way.” But in fact, he does not want government to “get out of the way” – at least not while they’re still shoveling millions into New Space company coffers – nor when they need (and they will) a ruling on, or protection of, their property rights in space. Any entity that accepts government money is making a “deal with the devil,” whereby it is understood that such money comes with oversight requirements (as well it should, consisting of taxpayer dollars).
Successful commercialization of space has occurred in the past (e.g., COMSAT) and will occur in the future. But the creation of a select, subsidized, quasi-governmental industry is not by any stretch of the imagination what we commonly understand free market capitalism to mean. It is more akin to oligarchical corporatism, a common feature of the post-Soviet, Russian economy. True private sector space will be created and welcomed, but not through this mechanism, whose most worrisome accomplishment to date has been to effectively distract Americans from noticing the dismantling of their civil space program and preeminence in space.