Saturday, April 30, 2005

Reality-Check Day at Space Access Conference: April 29 Notes

The dominant message of today's talks was that rocket scientists need to think about how they can succeed in the real world. Whereas yesterday's talks were dominated by engineering and rocket science with the occasional business model thrown in today's ratio was reversed. Most talks today focused on politics or business models.

Parts of the message were optimistic. The political presentations by the majority counsel for the House Science Committee and by representatives of the FAA were overwhelmingly positive. The Congress is on board with creating a friendly legislative environment for the development of a commercial suborbital space industry. The FAA is developing regulations that serve that Congressional intent. In the language of the business model, the "regulatory risk" is being reduced or eliminated.

The panel of venture capitalists who spoke were positive as well that investment money will flow to the commercial suborbital industry.

Yet part of today's message was not encouraging. It was a message the audience did not want to hear and tempers flared hot.

The delivery system for the harshest reality check of the day was a presentation by Drs. John Jurist, David Livingston, and Sam Dinkin of their paper "When Physics, Economics, and Reality Collide: The Challenge of Cheap Orbital Access." (The paper is copyrighted and so I cannot provide a link to it but click here to listen to an in depth discussion by the authors on The Space Show.)

The paper describes the high economic costs associated with developing a profitable business in orbital launch vehicles due in no small part to range costs and insurance costs and shows how difficult it will be to bring launch costs down to $1,000 per pound by focusing on engineering alone. Here's what they say in the introduction:

"Present technology might permit large, reusable vehicles, but there are many critical missing factors. Nobody has demonstrated the ability to design, fabricate, and fly such vehicles. Nobody has documented a convincing mechanism for financing and then amortizing the necessary research and development to create such vehicles. Nobody has determined a clear, solid business plan to implement the program required to do so. Nobody has demonstrated the market that would support the costs of creating such vehicles. Finally, nobody has proposed a viable strategy to go from our present flight rate of expendables to the extremely high flight rates of RLV’s projected for the mature industry which would permit achieving the low cost flights to LEO. The nontechnical factors of insurance and range costs alone are major obstacles to attaining this goal."

The paper comes to the noncontroversial conclusion that nontechnical issues, like range costs and insurance, have to be addressed for an orbital commercial launch industry to grow and mature.

The paper’s final paragraph quotes G. Henry (italics omitted),

"‘Any governmental policy maker, corporate CEO, or entrepreneur who believes that the current economic state of affairs in space transportation is amenable to profitable commercial enterprise (outside of very limited niche markets) is sorely mistaken.’"

However, the paper then concludes optimistically,

"Nevertheless, we believe that an evolutionary process from commercial suborbital vehicles to commercial orbital vehicle with capability of carrying passengers is feasible given realistic planning and financial goals and careful definition of the market. Ultimately, this evolutionary process will convert us into a space-faring society."

It seems to be a noncontroversial point to make that the conditions do not yet exist for a profitable commercial orbital launch industry but that one could develop incrementally on top of a successful suborbital industry. Yet the audience reacted to the point angrily.

One common accusation leveled at the speakers was that their analysis did not include physics. This is a strange attack to make on a paper that was written to address economic not technical barriers to a commercial launch industry. It’s especially strange considering so many of the engineering and rocket science presentations this weekend either included little or no economic analysis, and the economics that was included was often based on unprovable assumptions. To strain and mangle a metaphor, this is not like the pot calling the kettle black, this is the pot complaining because the white casserole dish is not black.

Another accusation leveled at the paper was that it was all smoke and mirrors. This is closer to the pot calling the kettle black.

The charge against the three doctors was led by another doctor: Jerry Pournelle. He had two main complaints about the paper. His first complaint was that the numbers were not realistic. For instance, the range fees cost could be eliminated by the use of the inexpensive GPS system. His second complaint was that the nontechnical costs could be eliminated with the “stroke of a pen.” In other words, government action.

With respect to his first point, one of the rocket builders in the audience told of his experience trying to fly a test sounding rocket. The range fee included a $70,000 cost for tracking despite the fact that the tracking system would never be turned on because the rocket would be tracked with a GPS device. The flight never occurred.

Jurist made the point that taking a launch off-range to avoid range fees involved other costs associated with environmental impact. Livingston told how SeaLaunch decided to rely on off-shore launches expressly to avoid the prohibitive range costs charged for land based launches from the United States.

Pournelle’s second point that the nontechnical costs would disappear with Congressional action actually flows from the paper’s conclusions. Government subsidy of the industry doesn’t mean the nontechnical costs don’t exist. It just means the taxpayers pay them not the user. Subsidizing the costs concedes the point that the industry is presently unable to pay the costs and run a profitable commercial orbital launch business.

Emotions ran higher during this talk than during all the other talks combined. Perhaps the punchiness came from the lateness of the evening. The oddity of the rancor was pointed out by Henry Vanderbilt, Executive Director of the Space Access Society. Both the speakers and the audience were in agreement that trying to build a commercial orbital space industry would be “insane” (as Vanderbilt put it) following business as usual practices.

Vanderbilt was correct as far his conclusion went. However, there appeared to be a definite difference in focus between the two camps. The speakers were pointing out the nontechnical problems and the difficulties associated with solving them. The audience believed those problems could be solved and didn’t want to hear how hard it would be to solve them.

It reminded me of that South Park episode with the “underpants gnomes.” In that episode the boys’ underwear keeps disappearing from their dressers and it turns out gnomes are coming into their rooms late at night and stealing their underpants. When the boys ask them to explain why they do this, the chief gnome explains it’s part of their business plan and he shows the boys some cards. For this discussion, let’s call them “viewgraphs.” The first viewgraph says “collect underpants.” The second is blank. And the third says “profit.” The gnomes didn’t know what to put into the blank viewgraph they just knew they needed to collect underpants and make a profit doing it. But filling in the blank is the trick to succeeding. Until you acknowledge there is a blank to be filled, you’ll never get from the first viewgraph to the third.


PS: I’ll post my notes on all the talks another time.

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Space Access Society Conference Notes Thursday, April 28th

Thursday's full day of talks at the Space Access Society's conference in Phoenix was a rocket scientist's dream. The theme of the day was alternative launch systems for space. There was a presentation on laser-array launches, tether applications, cannon assisted rocket launches, and design plans for a reusable space capsule and a reusable space plane. Most of the talks today were highly technical discussions of engineering. Being a lawyer it was hard to keep up. The audience mostly of males and engineers ate it up. What I took away from the talks is that the constraints of physics are a severe limitation. The talks that sought to change the rules of the game dealt with the development of new launch technologies, such as laser-array launches, cannon-assisted launches, and tethers. Of the three, the laser-array launches looked most promising for human payloads to me. Its use of off-the-shelf technology and the fact that it need not rely on aerospace companies for its development makes it an attractive alternative to rockets. It also need not rely on single sources for its components. It does suffer from the need for a rather large capital outlay but the marginal launch costs are very reasonable.

Tomorrow's lineup of speakers includes lawyers and government officials and the talks are about the latest legislation and regulations regarding private human space flight. I can hardly wait!

As best I can relate it here's a summary of Thursday's talks. It might read a little rough at times because what follows is essentially a transcription of my hand-written notes:

Notes for Space Access Society Thursday April 28, 2005

The first lecture was by Henry Spencer. His talk concerned sustainable spaceflight beyond LEO. After he made a gratuitous comment that his talk would not be limited to the “vision of Pope George I” he delved right in.

First he asked where are we going beyond LEO?

The first stop is the moon. Not as a stepping stone or merely a test bed but as a destination in itself because there’s a lot of lunar exploration still to do. It barely got started when Apollo ended.

What are the principles of sustainable spaceflight beyond LEO?

“Mars Can Wait.” A dash to Mars guarantees unsustainable spaceflight. Once you’ve accomplished your mission you’re done. They call it a crash program because of what happens after the program is done.

Sustainable means reusable hardware.


-Less costly if done right. By that he means low turnaround costs. In other words you shoot for a system where all you have to do with your ship is refuel it and fly it again.

-Expendable hardware increases risk of losing the program when you reach natural break points in your program.

-Reusable means testable. Very difficult to engineer a machine to be reliable the first time it is used. This is a major difficulty with expendable hardware.

Building a Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle is a terrible mistake. He lists the following major reasons.

-Cost is very high.
-Program will outgrow your HLLV sooner than you think. He said that as designed Saturn V was insufficient to send Apollo and Lander to the moon. Von Braun was worried about this and secretly designed Saturn V to be more robust than needed. Turned out to be correct decision as Apollo/Lander combination barely met Saturn V’s capabilities.
-In orbit assembly will be necessary. Since that is the case it makes sense to start designing for it now. The major advantage of orbital assembly is that you decouple your launch vehicle requirements form your mission. Even Apollo had orbital assembly but in lunar orbit.

A robust and sustainable spaceflight program will have orbital assembly and frequent launches. Thus, a base in LEO is needed. LEO base could have small tug. Launches don’t have to go all the way to base’s orbit, and payloads don’t need to have a docking mechanism. Let the tug do the docking.

Where to put the base? Here’s where he went into a lengthy discussion of rocket science. Factors needed to consider in base placement are

-Getting maximum payload out of launches.
-Your launch location on Earth.
-Getting maximum use out of base’s orbital velocity.
-High enough above atmosphere but below the Van Allen Belt

His bottom line conclusion is best place for base in LEO is where it will be best for sending a mission to the moon. For destinations beyond the Moon orbital placement is not as critical. He describes a 3 burn system for sending missions beyond the Moon that is not dependent on suitable placement of base in Earth orbit.

Some of his major points regarding the implications of Sustainability.

-Think in terms of long-term solutions.
-Don’t design vehicles to make sure they are completely self-sufficient. If design assumes assistance during emergency then design is easier.
-He said a Naval rather than aviation analogy works best beyond the moon. Think in terms of multiple ship missions, forward basing
-Think in terms of backup plans for emergencies rather than abort mode. Abort mode puts severe constraints on design. In other words, rather than designing mission where failure means the ship returns design mission where failure means the ship finishes mission as best it can. Comparison he makes was to Amundsen’s Antarctic mission. Amundsen was dropped off at Antarctic by ship and ship left leaving him and his men with two tasks until ship could return: survive and make it to South Pole, both of which he did.
-Think bigger. Build in margins for safety buffer. Don’t push performance margins. This gives mission better chance of success even with failure.
-In a related vein, live with inefficiency. Design for profitability with vehicle flying half-full.

He had some interesting things to say about the harshness of the lunar environment. If the hydrogen at the poles is water ice it’s likely to be rock hard permafrost that is combined with dust. So it would be a rock hard and abrasive rock.

He described how the estimated lifetime of an Apollo suit on the moon was one week. One of the astronauts on Apollo 17 had his helmet stuck due to dust buildup after just 3 days. Gene Cernan had outer gloves for his suit to protect the pressure suit gloves from the dust. His outer gloves were shredded by the time the mission had ended.

William Kelly of Triton Systems.

Triton is working on an orbital space plane. His talk focused on business. He said the three major concerns of venture capitalists are

1. Management team
2. Market
3. Product of service propietary advantage.

He described the things that venture capitalists look for to kill a plan.

Management team.

Does team know what P & L means? (Profit and loss)
Does team think they have no competition
Do they think they don’t have to explain anything. Enron-like arrogance.
Do they have no idea why their idea hasn’t been done before?
Is team’s main focus on owning 51 percent?


Customer can’t be described.
Company will own 100 percent of market worth 20 billion per year.
Path to success is littered with dead bodies.
Market has no competitors but is worth 20 billion dollars per year.

Triton’s business model contemplates using airfield operations, suborbital tourism, microsatellites, replacing Soyuz or Progress.

Short term, they are focused on sounding rockets and microsatellites as an underserved market. Not looking for space tourism market due to cost.

He likes Soyuz as a model for orbital vehicle.

George Herbert
Venturer Aerospace
Manned Spaceflight to Earth Orbit and Beyond.

Gave a lengthy slide-show presentation pitching his company’s plan to build a reusable space capsule, mate it to an expendable launch vehicle that they would purchase rather than build, and compete for Robert Bigelow’s America’s Space Prize and build on that success to develop company as major space company.

He views the near term opportunities as being:

America’s Space Prize
2-12 orbital tourists per year
up to 12 ISS crew per year
An ISS crew return vehicle

Capsule is designed to seat 5 passengers and 1 crew. Estimates cost is 30-35 million per flight at price for customers of 6 to 7 million each. Could be operational within 36 months of funding. His plan pins hopes on winning the 50 million dollar America’s Space Prize.

He outlined a multi-step plan to develop his capsule and launch it. He said his contacts with FAA so far have revealed that manned capsule falls in a regulatory gap where there is no license for manned capsules.

He targets Falcon V from Space-X as his launcher. So designing capsule to be 4 to 4.5 tons. Weight opens options for other launchers also.

Another design consideration is transportability on Earth. Needs to fit in a C-130, 747/767A, or be truck and train compatability.

He’s developed two concept designs. One is a blunt Apollo type cone and the other is a more elongated cone. Target weight is 4500 kgs, but must stay less than 5500 kgs.

Design is to be landed on ground, on prepared landing field in desert.

Lt. Cole Doupe of DARPA spoke about Falcon and Ares program. Small launch vehicle and hypersonic craft. Air Force’s major issue is responsiveness. They very much want something that can be turned around quickly and launched simply and quickly by small crew.

Jordin Kare spoke about laser launches. His presentation seemed most developed and backed up of the lot. Perhaps because it is based on what exists now. Bottom line I took away from this talk is that laser-array launch system is doable now with current technology and would be a vast improvement over rockets. Startup time is 10 years though and capital cost seemed prohibitive at 1 to 2 billion dollars. But resulting system would be very robust.

He detailed a proposal for using laser diode arrays to launch vehicles. The laser array system involves using a large number of smaller lasers rather than a single very large laser. His system would involve using the new generation of high powered lasers to build an array of 1,000 to 2,000 lasers covering an area the size of a golf course to launch an expendable cheap vehicle into LEO. He predicted such a system could launch 3,000 tons of payload into orbit each year, with 5 launches per hour, and could also launch on 15 minutes notice. Launch vehicle would need a 600 to 800 km flight path for launch. Vehicle is designed not to have to launch straight up but rather than flies over the array on its way up.

He claimed that marginal cost for each launch would be $200 to $300 per pound of payload.

Advantages of the system are that it uses off the shelf technology, vehicles can be simple, and don’t need an aerospace company to be involved.

Gerry Nordley of Tethers Unlimited spoke about the various uses for tethers. As did Henry Cate and Vincent Cate.

One interesting talk was by Bradley Parker of Heron Aerospace on the idea of cannon assisted rocket launches to orbit. He said that an 8 inch bore portable cannon could launch a payload of 1 to 25 pounds into orbit. The cannon serves as the first stage of the launch cycle. The advantage of the system is its portability and low cost. He said that as far back as World War I the German Army had used a cannon to bombard Paris that was capable of launching a payload into orbit. But they never thought to do it. A cannon-assited system would not be capable of launching humans as the g forces on launch can range from 5,000 on up to 30,000. To make it human capable would require a cannon with a 5 kilometer long barrel that is about 20 feet in diameter. But materials could be launched as well as microsatellites and supplies from a smaller cannon.

Those are the highlights of Thursday's talks. Friday's speakers include the majority counsel from the House Science Committee, an administrator from the FAA AST, and a panel discussion on space entrepeneurship and the FAA. The afternoon talks include presentations by Space Adventures, XCOR, Pioneer Rocketplane, among others. I'll try to post my notes and impressions of those talks at the end of the night again.


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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Space Access Society Conference

I will be attending the Space Access Society's annual conference in Phoenix this weekend. The society is devoted to breaking down the barriers to affordable private access to space. Come back to this blog for reports on the proceedings. Go here to see a description of the event, the agenda, and the list of prominent speakers from the private space industry.


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Dust On The Moon And Mars

This story (click here) is a comprehensive look at the potential problems astronauts will encounter on Luna and Mars because of the abundance of moisture-free dust on both worlds. I'm thinking future colonists on those worlds run the risk of suffering from off-world versions of Black Lung: Grey and Red Lung perhaps.

Dust turns out to be a serious potential hazard for another reason because without moisture the grains that make up dust remain sharp and when combined with severe winds on Mars equipment could be damaged by long-term exposure. Also the simple matter of digging a hole in low gravity and low or nonexistent atmospheric pressure is an unknown because we don't know how grains behave in that environment as compared to our own. There is so much we don't know about the simplest things off Earth. It's about time we worked on finding them out.


Grog For Cosmonauts!

According to the Russian website (story linked above), Cosmonaut Salizan Sharipov thinks alcohol should be allowed in space, 50 milliliters of wine or cognac every day. "But only to improve our work, to better cope with the psychological stress," he says.

I love the Russians.


Sci-Fi Movie Awards Night

The Academy of Science Fiction Fantasy and Horror Films hands out its Saturn Awards for best genre movies of 2004 next Tuesday, May 3d.

The nominees for best Science Fiction film are The Butterfly Effect, The Day After Tomorrow, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Forgotten, I, Robot, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

For my money Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the hands down winner. The movie is set in contemporary times but it's pure science fiction with its playing out of the consequences for humans of a new technology. In this case, a machine that allows people to erase bad memories from their mind. The cast was great, the plot was well executed, and the writing was intelligent. It was a superior movie.

As for the others, The Forgotten is an interesting alien mystery movie that shows how advanced alien technology will seem like magic to mere humans like us. Like Eternal Sunshine it's blessed with a good cast and an intriguing story. Shakespeare once said "all the world's a stage" and the band "Porno for Pyros" had a song "We'll Make Great Pets" about how we might relate to aliens. Well, The Forgotten tells us all the world is a laboratory and humans make great lab rats.

The Butterfly Effect is another stab at the Donnie Darko theme which poses the question what a troubled teenager should do when he finds out the world really would be better off without him. I completely endorse the message of each film. It's also about the perils of trying to be a fixer in human relationships.

Sky Captain has special effects galore but really cool special effects are not enough to make for an excellent movie. I, Robot is an action movie disguised as Isaac Asimov and The Day After Tomorrow is a disaster movie on a global scale and a disaster of a movie.

In the Horror genre the nominees are Blade: Trinity, Dawn of the Dead, The Grudge, Open Water, Saw, Shaun of the Dead, and Van Helsing.

Full disclosure compels me to admit that I haven't seen Blade: Trinity. I hated Blade but liked its first sequel very much.

With that caveat in mind, my favorite horror movie of this bunch has to be Shaun of the Dead. It is a great comedic tribute to the zombie movie.

On the other hand Dawn of the Dead is not much of a tribute to anything. It's just a remake of the original zombie movie of the same name and it adds nothing to the genre. One thing in the movie held my interest and it turned out to be a mistake on my part. I watched the entire movie mistakenly believing that the actor Jake Weber was actually the flamboyant actor Alan Cumming. I was impressed at the counter-intuitive casting and the low key masculinity of the portrayal. Wrong!

The Grudge is a pale imitation of its Japanese original and neither hold a candle to Ringu, the masterpiece of the creepy atmospheric Japanese horror movies.

Saw is very tense but it's got huge plot holes It's also another in the line of gimmick movies pioneered by The Sixth Sense where the revelation at the end purports to explain everything that happened before.

Open Water is an indie favorite for its use of hand cameras and digital video and very low budget filming. It's a claustrophobic portrayal of a couple's doomed last days on Earth as they are tracked for dinner by a pack of sharks. A very realistic feeling movie.

As for Van Helsing, why was the movie even made, let alone nominated for an award? What a waste of Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale.

In the fantasy category, I only saw Hellboy and The House of Flying Daggers and liked them both.

Guillermo del Toro knows how to make movies (Cronos, Mimic, Blade II, are good examples) and Hellboy was no exception. Ron Perlman shone in the title role and the Academy has done him a disservice by not nominating him for best actor.

The House of Flying Daggers is a Chinese martial arts art movie with an annoying plot about ill-fated love. Hero, made by the same director, Yimou Zhang, is better. It's a marvel of color, choreography, directing, cinematography, and storytelling. See that film first.

It's a shame the awards show won't be televised. It's something Sci-Fi channel should consider.



Friday, April 22, 2005

Zubrin's Shining Path To The Stars

Read the linked article by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. It's a coherent analysis of the good and the bad of the Vision for Space Exploration. It also outlines a rational and well planned program for human space exploration that could actually get us somewhere in the Heliosphere in the near future.

Reading his analysis reminds me why I joined his Mars Society in the first place. He dreams big dreams and then shows you step by step how to accomplish them. It's all about setting goals and doing what it takes, and only what it takes, to accomplish them.

Ad Luna, Ad Ares, Ad Astra. Let's just go already!



Friday, April 15, 2005

Luna's Lakefront Property Mapped At Poles?

Click here to see an article from NASA about the discovery of high concentrations of hydrogen at the Lunar polar regions. The hydrogen is believed to be water ice mixed in surface regolith. Embedded in the article is a link (here) to another article that explains in more detail how the hydrogen was measured and that also includes some pretty cool diagrams.

Compared to the rest of the moon, the region where water might exist is pretty small. On the whole the moon is a pretty dry place. For the sci-fi trained among us, think Arrakis but with regolith instead of sand. The Dune analogy holds up because in that novel the wet region of Arrakis was at the pole as well. Perhaps the first lunar city could be called Arrakeen.

But I digress. So back to something closer to reality.

This link (here) speculates that the ice's mass at each pole is about 6.6 billion tons. In comparison a large Antarctic iceberg of 400 million tons would provide enough fresh water for 3 million people for a year. You can do the math on what that means for human habitation of the moon (I'm a lawyer, Jim, not a hydrologist!), but suffice to say if the estimates of Lunar ice are anywhere near accurate that's a lot of glasses of water. (Not as many as on Mars, that's true, and the water ice on Mars covers much more territory than on Luna. Still, it's a lot of Lunar water.)

Which brings us back to the first NASA article linked above. There's a map embedded in it with blue shading at the polar regions to indicate where the hydrogen, believed to be water ice, was detected. If that belief turns out to be true, the blue regions could well show where human civilization will develop on the moon, or at the least, where the more expensive real estate will be.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Maybe Now We'll Catch Up With The Russians Again.

Here's the passage from new NASA Director Mike Griffin's testimony to Congress that reveals he's one of us. A true believer in human destiny in space.

The aftermath of the tragic loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003 brought us to a watershed moment in the American civil space program. Choices had to be made. The President has put forth a choice, a strategic vision for the space program. That vision has been enunciated with exceptional clarity, and has been subjected to considerable public debate for over a year. I think it may be said that, while differences of opinion exist, the President’s proposal has attained broad strategic acceptance. It is now understood that the International Space Station, supported by the Space Shuttle, cannot be the centerpiece of the nation’s human spaceflight program.

The strategic vision for the U.S. manned space program is of exploration beyond low Earth orbit. It is a daring move at any time for a national leader to call for the bold exploration of unknown worlds, a major effort at the very limit of the technical state of the art. And it was the same way back in 1492, when Queen Isabella
overrode King Ferdinand’s reluctance and backed Columbus’ voyage to “the New World,” the first step in the creation of Spain’s colonial empire. But few recall that 1492 was a key year in the history of Western civilization, entirely apart from the European “discovery” of the New World. The big news that year was the re-conquest of
Granada after a ten-year siege by Spanish forces, an event which essentially marked the conclusion of an eight-century struggle against the Moorish occupation of Spain. With the Spanish treasury depleted, many – including King Ferdinand – believed that it was not the time for the nation to be embarking on what was, in that era, an effort right at the edge of what was technologically possible.

But whether or not the story of Queen Isabella pledging her jewels to back the voyage is true, it is a matter of record that Isabella, Queen of Aragon in her own right, understood that several other nations were capable of sponsoring Columbus, and likely would if Spain did not. England, France, and Italy had arisen as European powers while Spain had struggled against the Moors, and Spain’s tiny neighbor, Portugal, had prospered through the growth of her maritime prowess under Prince Henry the Navigator. The “discovery” of the New World had happened before and would have happened again, whether or not Columbus had ever sailed from Palos. One way or another, European settlement of the New World was inevitable; however, it was Isabella’s bold action that secured Spain’s role in that future. If Columbus failed, she would be discredited, but if he succeeded, Spain would succeed, and would become preeminent among the nations of her time – and that was the way it happened.

And that is the way it is today. In the twenty-first century and beyond, for America to continue to be preeminent among nations, it is necessary for us also to be the preeminent spacefaring nation. Or are we willing to accept the world of a generation or two hence where other nations will be engaged in the development of the Solar
System, and we are not? If not, then it is time to recognize that we have squandered a once-insurmountable lead in the arts and sciences of spaceflight. The best we can say for ourselves today is that our grounded Space Shuttle is much more sophisticated than the operational vehicles belonging to the two nations which have sent people into space since we have last done so.

And here's the immediately following passage that reveals he's a realist too. He may want to pick up the pace a little but he's on board with the President's goals and plans for human space exploration. So don't expect any huge increase in NASA funding or a repeat of the Apollo crash program but this time to Mars.

None of this is to say that the United States should necessarily plan to “go it alone” in space exploration. Great nations must be prepared to do so when necessary, but it is equally true that great nations need allies and partners. There is room for these relationships in the President’s Vision for Space Exploration, and certainly we have benefited from the Russian capability to support the International Space Station during the two years in which the Shuttle has been grounded. But in the future, the United States should avoid dependence upon other nations for
critical spacefaring systems.

Many who share the President’s strategic vision for space exploration are nonetheless lukewarm in their support, believing it to be unaffordable or unsustainable. This concern is understandable. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, and Chair of the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, Pete Aldridge, has pointed out that to be effective, the commitment to space exploration needs to be sustained over multiple Presidential Administrations and sessions of Congress.

The strategic vision for space must therefore be broadly inclusive, to enable a consistent and appropriate level of financial support without disruptive funding peaks and valleys. The decision to have a robust space program is like the decision to have a capable military force – it cannot be made in one year and un-made in the next. The nation does not debate, each year, whether or not it will have such forces. A similarly sustained bipartisan commitment to American leadership in space is required.

And, at least since the aftermath of the Challenger accident, nineteen years ago, we have had exactly that commitment. In constant dollars, NASA has received approximately the same allocation of funding from the taxpayers in the last sixteen years – the Space Station Era – as it received in its first sixteen years – the Apollo Era. If we are less attracted to the results of the Station Era than of the Apollo Era, then we need to reconsider our goals and our manner of pursuing them. But if funding levels continue in accordance with the President’s plans, resources are sufficient to enable a U.S. return to the Moon, and, later, to go to Mars. The country has already demonstrated the consistent support that NASA must have over an extended period of time to execute a program of human exploration. We simply have been doing other things with that money.

Click here to read it all.


Looking For Lakefront Property In Space.

These two stories (click here and here) illustrate the importance of water to human colonies in space. Both are based on data from Luna sent back to Earth by the Clementine probe. Scientists analyzing the data say they have identified an ideal location for a colony near the Lunar North Pole. The site is good for human habitation because it is perpetually in sunlight and so the temperature is more stable than typical on the moon. The perpetual sunlight would help to provide unlimited solar power. (Why plans for lunar colonies don't assume nuclear power is beyond me but whatever.) The other advantage to the polar site is the possibility of water ice existing in shadowed craters nearby.

It's interesting to me how this research is driven by Presient Bush's Vision for Space Exploration. He set a goal for the US space program to return the moon and establish a permanent presence there. Because of this goal, the scientists who looked at Clementine's data viewed it through a prism of establishing a permanent human base on the moon. This either shows how leadership can focus the activities of those involved in space research, or more cynically, it shows how scientists pay attention to the words of political leaders and tailor their presentations to ensure funding. Even more leadership would be a good thing.

This website (click here) is fairly old so its information predates the Clementine data and Bush 43's vision thing. It presents information submitted to NASA back in 1990 about what it might take to put a base at a lunar pole. Despite its being somewhat dated, one aspect of the plan intrigues me.

To reduce the cost of sending supplies to the moon, the plan proposes making recyclable supply ships. Others more informed than I may have heard of this, but this is the first I've ever read of the idea. The options I'm most familiar with regarding space ships are whether they should be reusable or not. A recyclable space ship, although only used once, is not designed to be discarded after use. Instead, the supply ship is designed to be canibalized for its parts and materials upon landing on the moon. Thus, the usable payload weight is increased to include the weight of the ship itself thereby reducing wasted weight and cost.

One element unifies all three of the links above. That is the importance of placing a human colony on the moon at a place where water might exist. Since water ice is believed to exist at certain places near the moon's poles, the poles are considered to be ideal locations for human colonies. Just as on Earth, where cities have grown up near water, human colonies in space will be planted where water exists and will spread from there. For that reason, Mars is a much more attractive location for human civilization in space than the Moon. Long term, however, I'd place my bets on the giant gasbags past the Asteroid Belt and their moons.


Monday, April 11, 2005

Earth-Crossing Asteroids: Threat or Resource?

This Washington Post story is about asteroid hunters, astronomers who scan the sky for objects that could hit the Earth. The astronomers are mapping the skies under a government-funded program.

It's a worthy project but the reality is that if astronomers were to discover a planet-killer asteroid heading to Earth there is little or nothing we could do to stop it. Our spacefaring capability is too primitive.

The story is interesting because of how it views Earth-crossing space bodies. They are viewed exclusively as potential dangers to Earth that must be mapped. This is pretty much the beginning and end of mainstream opinion on asteroids. Is there a danger that one will collide with the Earth and send us to the same extinct species list the dinosaurs are on?

But there could be a benefit to comets and asteroids that come near the Earth. Exploitation.

San Diego's own space company, SpaceDev, has long wanted to send a private mission to a nearby asteroid. Called NEAP, the project has evolved into a mission to land a small craft on an asteroid carrying various engineering, science, and entertainment payloads. But as originally conceived the plan was to use the landing as a test case to make a legal claim to the asteroid.

Such a mission is not beyond our capabilities at the moment. What seem to be beyond our present capabilities are missions to mine the asteroids. Once we develop that capability the maps the asteroid hunters are plotting now might be used someday, not to protect the Earth from collision, but by prospectors looking to make a buck mining an asteroid.


You Call That A Telescope? Now, That's A Telescope.

Turns out the future of astronomy might be right here on the ground with the development of Extremely Large Telescopes, so big they could fill a sports stadium. According to the story linked above, once built, an ELT would provide resolutions up to 40 times that of Hubble.

Space advocacy groups continue to invest time, money and PR in a crusade to save the Hubble ostensibly for the astronomy the space-based scope produces. Their position is based on a premise that Hubble will remain the best telescope astronomers could have. If an Earth-based ELT will be able to provide better images than Hubble the rationale for supporting a mission to save the space telescope disappears.


Saturday, April 09, 2005

Las Vegas, Mars

I just spent a weekend in Las Vegas. The urban architecture there is of a city without native history and is completely alien to its desert surroundings. Don't even try to convince me the Sahara casino somehow qualifies. Trust me, it doesn't. Vegas is a city from a nowhere plopped down in the middle of somewere else.

But the city's mismatch with the desert prompted my sci-fi trained imagination to see Las Vegas as being like a future city on Mars. A Mars city where the designers try to recreate cultural cliches from Earth so that workers from the outlands far from their home planet can come to throw away their hard-earned wages on anything that money can buy except for the best that money can buy. (That line pretty much sums up Las Vegas, Earth, for me too.)

The city's surrounding terrain fits this Mars analogy. Las Vegas looks like it's in the middle of a bowl of sand, dirt, and dust surrounded by mountains. Sort of like a city plopped down in the middle of a Martian crater.

They say there's dust everywhere on Mars blown by the wind and that this is likely to be a probem for future colonies. Well, Las Vegas has got dust in spades. (I'd like to see the Mars Society put an analog research station there to figure out how to live in a city surrounded by dust. I can see it now. Four MS members in space suits standing around a craps table trying to roll dice in their work gloves and communicating with each other via radios, "Come on seven. Over".) Anyway, the city is dirty. The wind was blowing hard this weekend and dust was getting into everything. Apparently, this is not unusual. I saw a public health ad billboard showing a man's headshot and a warning against dust called "don't be a dust hole." No explanation what a "dust hole" is but it doesn't sound good and I bet they'll have them on Mars one day.


Thursday, April 07, 2005

Rubles in Space

Russia's space agency is one can-do organization. Recently they announced the US could buy a Soyuz spaceship and launcher from them for 800 million rubles (about 28 million dollars). Then they announced two more space tourists are in the running for another flight next year.

Meanwhile, the United States is about to return to space next month with another shuttle flight at a potential estimated cost of a billion dollars or more. The US space tourism industry is still getting its feet wet. Although the US became the first country to launch a civilian into suborbital space on a private spaceship last year, so far no paying passengers have even gone suborbital. On the other hand, Russia is choosing who will be the third paying passenger they fly into space next year.

Russia has the same go-slow philosophy as the US does in one area of space flight, though. Russia's space agency announced their intention to go to the moon in 2015-2020 and to Mars after 2030. This timetable is about the same as NASA's.

The likely difference is that Russia will get there cheaper and will be trying to make a buck in the process.


Sunday, April 03, 2005

Mars on Earth

I was a guest on a second Mars related panel at the CondorCon science fiction convention in San Diego recently. I joined Gerry Williams and Jeff Berkwits of the Mars Society of San Diego for a panel discussion of the Mars Society's analog research station in the Utah desert.

MDRS, as the Utah station is called, is a simulated Mars lander with a greenhouse and an observatory. The station is about 30 feet in diameter and 2 stories high. It houses 6 researchers in individual second-floor staterooms. Additional living facilities are located on the same floor. The first floor has an airlock, a work station, and a laboratory.

The Mars Society operates the station using private donations and membership dues and contributions. The station is open from Fall through the Spring with crews that rotate in and out every two weeks. Researchers at the station do all their outside activities in space suits in order to simulate the conditions of working on Mars. MDRS is in its fourth year.

MDRS and its companion station in the Arctic Circle comprise the most sustained analog research program for learning how to live on Mars being conducted by anybody here on Earth. It's one of the things that makes me proud to be a member of the Mars Society. The San Diego chapter has been involved in providing mission support for the Utah station. San Diego member Shannon Rupert Robles has been a crew member and commander at both the Utah and the Arctic station. She also heads the station's science research program.

Check out the latest news from Mars on Earth here.



NASA's Little Rovers That Could

I was a guest recently at a science fiction convention in San Diego, CondorCon. I was a panelist along with my able associates from the Mars Society of San Diego, Gerry Williams and Jeff Berkwits, on a panel about the past year on Mars for NASA's Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity.

We had a very large crowd in the room for such a convention, over 40 people. Interest, even after a year, is very high about the rovers.

Gerry had put together another of his excellent multimedia slide shows for the event. The rovers have produced a tremendous library of photographs, some of which are quite striking in their beauty. They have even photographed clouds on the red planet.

The information they have sent back has advanced our knowledge of Mars significantly. They have confirmed that Mars once had flowing water on its surface suggesting that the conditions for life once existed on that cold and dry planet.

This information, combined with the information about large accumulations of water ice under the surface provided by Mars Global Surveyor, and the information about methane concentrations in the atmosphere of Mars provided by telescopes on Earth and Europe's Mars Express, is highly suggestive of the continued existence of some life on Mars to this day. Or volcanism. Even that would be an exciting discovery since Mars is believed to be a geologically dead planet. But that's not quite as exciting to think about as the prospect of life on Mars, even underground microbes.

The Mars Society of San Diego will be talking more about these topics later in April here in San Diego when we present an updated and expanded version of Gerry's multimedia show about the Mars Rovers at the Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego. The talk is scheduled for April 16, 2005, from 1 to 2 pm.

We will also have the Mars Society of San Diego's model rover for viewing and driving, in addition to photos and videos of the Mars Society's simulated Mars base in Utah.

If you're in town, come see us.



Saturday, April 02, 2005

Battlestar Galactica: It's Not For Kiddies Anymore.

I could barely watch the original Battlestar Galactica TV series. I tried a few times but it never measured up to my expectations. It always seemed too geared to a juvenile audience.

The current version of the series on Sci-Fi channel, on the other hand, works for three reasons. It's adult, adult, adult. This is science fiction so there are spaceships and uniforms and special effects. The effects are very well done, which provides a foundation of quality for the show, but it's the superstructure of the acting, the writing, and the plot that makes this the superior show that it is. It's got quality writing and the acting is understated and naturalistic. Indeed, the show rises to the level of ensemble acting led by Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnel.

The show chronicles the flight of 50,000 humans in a fleet of ships who are the last survivors of an attack by the Cylons, an android and robot civilization. It's a grim situation and the episodes are presented with the seriousness and tension such a situation deserves. The episodes don't end with everything put back just right in the way that many science fiction adventure TV shows do. Instead, in this series, each episode is a chapter in a continuing story without final resolution.

A big reason that the show works so well, for me anyway, is that although the creators of the show respect their characters, they don't seem to be in love with them. The characters are written and played as human beings with strengths and weaknesses. They act according to their character. They make decisions that are good and bad. They are not perfect heroes. Much like real life.

This was driven home by the season finale. Olmos's character, Commander Adama, makes what seems to me to be an incredibly wrong decision and stages what is for all intents and purposes a military coup. His son defies him and is arrested. A key character, unknown to the others a Cylon spy, shoots Adama in the final scene leaving him apparently dead or dying. This is practically sacrilege. My understanding of the tradition of Battlestar Galactica from the first series is that Adama is a wise leader. This Adama might be a good military commander but he is far from wise.

The season's ending is a cliffhanger with the Cylons apparently having gotten a huge upper hand over the humans. Ending the season with a cliffhanger is not exactly breaking TV ground. But where this show does continue to push the envelope for me is in how it pushes its heroes around so hard. The humans truly have no idea what they are doing. They continue to do the best they can with the limited knowledge they have. But it's the Cylons who have the fully developed plan, and it's they who are pushing the humans along to fulfill that plan. The Cylons are a menacing enemy. Not just because they are so powerful but because they know exactly what they are doing all the time. The plot is driven by that power imbalance and it makes for compelling drama.

I can hardly wait for next season's return in July.



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