Veteran astronauts propose new space station law

6 07 2011

Debris from the reentry of the Russian space station Mir. (Credit: AP)

In a letter written to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and posted to SpaceRef last week, a contingent of veteran astronauts, while urging that the space shuttle not be retired, made a very interesting proposition:  A new, international rule for large objects in orbit.

So, what is this rule?  The letter states, “Any object placed in orbit that is too large for an uncontrolled reentry must have a spacecraft available to support independent EVA repairs.”  In short, the adoption of this rule would require the maintenance of the Space Shuttle as a viable craft beyond the last currently-scheduled launch later this month.  The Space Shuttle is the only spacecraft currently in operation with its own airlock and robotic arm – components necessary to conduct “independent” extra-vehicular inspections and repairs.

NASA's space station Skylab. (Credit: NASA)

Let’s take a step back for a moment.  Why is the ability to conduct independent EVA repairs important?  Back in 1979, Skylab, NASA’s troubled but pioneering space station, suffered an uncontrolled reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.  The event became an international fiasco with hyperpublicized potential for debris impacts in populated areas.  (Debris did land unexpectedly in Australia, though no injuries or significant damage were reported.) 

Should current or future space stations suffer damage from a meteor or orbiting debris, the ability to conduct an independent EVA and repair would be necessary to prevent that station from eventually falling victim to an uncontrolled reentry.  -And the impact may not be as forgiving as was Skylab’s. 

In general, I don’t disagree with the proposition, though I’m not sure continuing to pay through the nose to keep the shuttle aloft is the way to go.  Perhaps there is even a hint of a commercial service market here, with on-orbit tele-operated inspection and repair space-tugs available for a fee?  Certainly, I feel the necessity of rapid orbital inspection and repair is a pressing one, which deserves a conversation of its own.

Food for thought.





Finding the incentive to settle space…

19 05 2011

To many, the outward expansion of humanity into the cosmos is inevitable.  It seems that a portion of our population is (and has always been) innately possessed of a drive toward the frontier, wherever that might be at the time… 

The Antarctic exploration ship Endurance locked in ice, 1915. (Credit: The Royal Collection/2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Whether venturing to the New World, exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth’s poles, probing the abyssal oceanic depths, or rocketing our way to the Moon – there have always been people who have emerged with the deep-seated desire to expand our horizons.  The exercise reaps clear benefits to our cultures, our societies, and our knowledge of the universe at large, and some part of our ancient psyche knows it.  As Johannes Kepler eloquently put it (nearly four centuries ago!):

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.”

Clearly, the problem with exploration hasn’t historically been finding the desire to explore.  It’s been finding the commercial incentive. 

Human exploration is necessarily expensive; by definition it is  set away from convenience, requiring feats of transportation and logistics no matter the era.  Even more than survival on the frontier, history has shown that convincing financiers that the endeavor is a worthwhile (and often, also potentially lucrative) one has been an explorer’s paramount challenge.

So sits the human exploration of space today – idling on the runway.  Technologically, we are capable of venturing outward, well beyond the Earth.  Many of the risks of the space environment are now (at least partially) known, and we’ve nearly completed the first-order exploration of all of the major bodies of the Solar System. 

We’re ready to start getting out there.  We just need to find an economically-compelling reason to get out there.

Space tourism will help further the technology needed to expand our footprint into space, but such trips will be initially limited to those seeking largely intangible returns.  And, while there are fairly obvious economic and environmental benefits to utilizing extraterrestrial resources, we lack the infrastructure to justify the incredible expense of making a practical go of it.  We need something with a narrower field of view – something to help us build the first waystations that will open the doors to commerce off-world.

As it so happens, the space policy think tank Space Settlement Institute has developed such a plan.  -And it just might work.  Called the “Space Settlement Initiative,” it floats the idea (so-to-speak) of turning percieved international space law on its head by challenging the U.S. Congress to recognize the ownership of land on the Moon and Mars (or any other extraterrestrial body) by those who “settle” it (read: physically visit and claim).  This ownership, in turn, could be bought and sold on Earth.

View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site, 7-19 Dec. 1972. (Credit: NASA)

Suddenly, extraterrestrial commerce is in full swing, with lunar and Martian land being optioned, sold, and traded just as mineral rights attached to land a person has never seen are regularly incorporated into his or her investment portfolio.  Now, the business model for building the initial waystations and transportation systems to Low Earth Orbit, Lunar Orbit, and the lunar surface is baited with the very real return of saleable physical property.

Various uses have been proposed for extraterrestrial land, from ecosystem lifeboats and knowledge repositories to low-gravity retirement communities.  Were the Space Settlement Institute’s plan to be adopted and a pioneer to venture out and stake a claim, each of these uses would suddenly have potentially real locations with a demonstrated means of transportation.

-And as we know, it’s a short period of time between when new locations show up on our maps and when we find a way to reach them.

I’m totally jazzed by this idea.  It seems to me that all the plan needs in order to gain traction is steady promotion to Congressional leaders, policy-makers, potential venture capitalists, and the public.  Who knows?  If they’re right, perhaps the next Rockefeller will be made in the pursuit of lunar real-estate. 

Food for thought.





Congress strikes back: The REAL Space Act

3 05 2011

U.S. Congressman Bill Posey is at it again, this time indirectly taking aim at President Obama’s new commercial space initiative.  With a cohort of cosponsors, Posey has introduced a new bill, (H.R. 1641,) entitled, “REasserting American Leadership in Space Act,” a.k.a., the “REAL Space Act.” 

It’s aim?  To send us back to the moon in a decade – this time to stay.

In addition to the traditional “preaching to the choir” statement about the necessity of returning to the Moon from a planetary science and space exploration logistics perspective, (which I endorse wholeheartedly,) the bill also makes a powerful case from a number of other standpoints: 

  • Legally, it outlines that the 109th, 110th, and 111th Congresses all made a return to the Moon an integral priority of NASA’s mission, which the 112th Congress has a mandate to continue.
  • Domestically, it claims that a sustained human lunar presence (read: moon base) would inspire a new generation of Americans to study math and science while stimulating technical, scientific, and medical advances that are rich with applications back here on Earth.
  • Internationally (and politically), the bill also states that because China and Russia understand the importance of a lunar presence and have announced their intentions to colonize the Moon, we have a pressing strategic impetus to return ourselves. 

Now, we don’t yet know how this bill will fare.  In all likelihood, any plan to return to the Moon would be in direct funding competition with NASA’s push to help develop a commercial space transportation system.  At this point, we have to hurry up and wait to see if NewSpace vs. Lunar turns into anything other than a glancing blow.

As for me?  I’d prefer we do both, really.  (It’s hard for me not to notice that doing so would be a drop in the bucket compared to the annual defense budget expenditures.)





Astrowright Academy and the Classroom of Tomorrow

23 08 2010

Well, just a quick note this morning.  Today is my first day of class as a graduate student in the University of North Dakota’s School of Aerospace Sciences Department of Space Studies program.

So, you could say that my advanced academic push toward becoming an astrowright has begun.  -And in true 21st Century form, as I commute to work, I’ll actually be “attending” a lecture.

University of North Dakota SpSt 541 class lecture #2. Credit: Me.

Here goes nothing.





(Declaration of) Space Independence

6 07 2010

Sean Connery as William O'Niel, a Federal Marshal assigned to a mining outpost on Jupiter's moon Io in the film Outland. Credit: Warner Brothers

Well, being that we recently celebrated Independence Day here in the United States, I’d like to lob a few ideas into the fray regarding the political future of our own activities in space.  Namely, I’d like to talk about the idea of space sovereignty.  “Commercial space” is ramping up, and when thinking seriously about the political realities of working for extended periods of time off-world, practical questions inevitably arise:

  • Under whose laws are astronauts in orbit governed?
  • Who has legal jurisdiction in space?
  • Can laws even be enforced in space when there is no good (or at times even possible) way to police astronauts?
  • Will new or different laws be necessary for the orbital frontier?  For other worlds?
  • Is it a necessary eventuality that those working in space will declare themselves a sovereign “nation” – delivering a new Declaration of Independence from Earth?

Nathan Fillion as post-space-civil-war rebel Captain Malcom Reynolds on the TV series Firefly. Credit: Fox Television

These topics have been addressed fairly extensively in the science-fiction genre.  Popularly, Outland, a film starring Sean Connery in the 1980s, follows a “federal marshal” of sorts whose job it is to maintain the rule of law on the rough-and-tumble mining stations of Jupiter’s moon, Io.  The cult hit Firefly follows a less-than-law-abiding private starship crew eking out an existence in the aftermath of an interplanetary civil war where frontier independence was attempted and failed.  The common themes here recognize that space is truly a frontier, and those who are the first to work there will necessarily be far (the farthest yet!) from those that make and enforce the laws that allegedly govern them.  Obviously this presents problems.  It’s no surprise that these stories tend to fall into the “space western” camp, because perhaps the best parallel human history possesses for how space will be populated is, ahem, how the west was won.

The topic has also been legitimately addressed, at least insofar as it has had to be.  Many people don’t realize that legally today, spacecraft are considered “native soil” of the country that owns them.  The U.S.-owned modules of the International Space Station, for instance, are considered American soil, the Russian-owned modules are Russian soil, and so on.  One can imagine quite a childish scenario should our countries ever declare war, where astronauts and cosmonauts each retreat to their own modules and close the hatches, awaiting their return trip home on separate spacecraft.

U.S.S.R. Cosmonaut Lenov and U.S. Astronaut Stafford meet during the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in orbit. Credit: NASA

However, I suspect a little civil disobedience would rule the day in orbit should terrestrial nations with cooperative astronauts ever come into conflict.  The harsh realities of space can only bring into sharp relief human limitations, and as a result, space has historically and consistently been a frontier of cooperation.  Long before the Berlin Wall came down, the ideological and political barriers of the Cold War were surpassed by cooperation in orbit between the United States and the Soviet Union starting with the Apollo-Soyuz program.  This cooperation continued with Shuttle-Mir missions through to the construction of the International Space Station.

Space Shuttle Atlantis connected to Russia's Mir Space Station as photographed by the Mir-19 crew on July 4, 1995. Credit: NASA

Today, the International Space Station itself represents one of the most, (and perhaps the greatest,) globally-cooperative projects in human history, involving 15 nations so far with more in line to participate.  So, I don’t buy that these men and women, who have formed bonds and a working kinship practically impossible for any of us who have not been there to understand, will simply turn their backs on each other because someone on the ground tells them to.

The real wildcards to me in this hypothetical future, however, are the multinational corporations.  What if everything those of us who support “private space” are hoping for succeeds, and private corporations loft their own spacecraft and stations into space?  Well, who’s sovereign soil are those spacecraft?  The country that launched them?  I don’t think that logically follows…  And as I said, if a corporation “resides” and legally operates in more than one nation, is it a free-for-all, like international waters – which would in turn require its own set of laws?

Just a few thoughts.  As always, comments welcome.





Alien archeology – now a real science?

15 05 2010

Concept sketch of Mars xenoarchaeological site from movie Total Recall. Credit: Steve Burg

Well, I’ve done it.  Making good on a promise I made to myself while presenting a poster at the Society of American Archaeology conference in 2008, I recently submitted an article to the journal Space Policy outlining a framework for a science that doesn’t quite exist yet: Xenoarchaeology.

“Xeno” is Greek/Latin for “foreign” or “stranger.”

Seriously.  I drew from SETI protocols, interplanetary geological sample return guidelines, archaeology fundamentals, and historical examples to make a call for a proactive set of xenoarchaeological guidelines.  My argument?  -The moment that we find something we think might be the real deal on another planet is the wrong moment to try and figure out how to study it correctly and credibly.  And we’ve got spacecraft and landers everywhere these days.  -It’s only a matter of time until we do cross over something that makes us double-take.

To paraphrase my general points in the paper, an archeological mindset is particularly well-suited to analyzing a site of truly unknown character, but there are planetary science landmines a regular archaeologist would be completely unprepared to dodge.  Gravity, temperature, chemistry, and electromagnetic environment can all be (and likely are) very different on another world, which will affect essentially every property of an object.  On Earth we can take all of those things for granted – the strength and effectiveness of friction, for example.  On Mars?  We had to completely redesign the drill bits used on our Mars rovers simply because the effectiveness of a cutting edge on Mars is only half what it is here on Earth because the atmospheric pressure is so low, which is in turn because the gravity is 1/3 weaker.  See what I mean?

If it walks like an arrowhead, and it talks like an arrowhead… it might not actually be an arrowhead on Mars.

So, that’s my stab at taking a scientific discipline out of the realm of science fiction and elevating it to reality.  -The paper made it favorably through editorial review, and I am waiting to hear back on comments from the peer referees.

My ulterior motive?  I really do believe it’s only a matter of time until we find something – and if I center myself in the burgeoning discipline, when we do find something (if I don’t happen to be the one who stumbles across it, myself)… they’ll have to call me.

Fingers crossed.

(NOTE, 10/2010:  The paper was accepted and published!  Find it here.)

(NOTE, 05/2011: See the follow-up post on article responses here!)





Congressman Posey throws Space Smackdown ahead of Obama Speech

9 04 2010

Late last month, Representative Bill Posey (R-Florida) wrote an intense letter to President Obama, who is currently preparing to outline the nation’s new Vision for Space Exploration this Thursday.  Unnervingly, no one really knows what the President is going to say, except that we know he’s cancelled NASA’s Moon-Mars Constellation Program and the Ares-class of lifting rockets, but he is going to divert more money to the private sector instead.  Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

To that end, first-term Congressman Posey took it upon himself to snail-mail Obama and basically accuse him of:

  1. Being a hypocrite,
  2. Turning his back on his campaign promises with regard to space exploration,
  3. Needlessly sacrificing the Shuttle, (a worthy space vehicle according to the Augustine Commission,)
  4. Relinquishing our space superiority (and national security by extension) to Russia and China,
  5. Kicking Florida’s already-thrashed employees while they’re down by canceling NASA’s Constellation Program,
  6. Leaving our own astronauts in the cold by failing to propose or develop a new space vehicle while retiring the Shuttle.

He then asks for an invite to the speech this Thursday to participate.  That’s moxie.

On the whole, I really respect Representative Posey’s position, and the letter is definitely worth reading for those interested in the future of our space program.  Considering the points the congressman makes, unless Obama can deliver a strong message and instill a firm, clear, and captivating goal for U.S. space exploration, (Mars, asteroids… something exciting,) or unless private spaceflight steps up to the plate, I believe you, Bill.

We just might lose our edge.





Capital Hill fights back to save Shuttle, Constellation rockets, and jobs?

14 03 2010

In the face of President Obama’s recent push to privatize spaceflight at the expense of NASA’s space fleet, parallel bills are being introduced in the U.S. House and Senate to bolster the government’s waning space capabilities.  Called the Human Spaceflight Capability Assurance and Protection Act, the bills propose additional funding to extend the operational life of both the Shuttle and the International Space Station while salvaging a NASA-led Shuttle replacement from the mothballed Constellation Program.

By my rough calculations, this effectively calls for doubling NASA’s budget for FY 2011 and 2012.

While the bill’s proponents in the House, (Congressmen Kosmas and Posey of Florida,) claim the measure ensures the U.S.’s ability to make full use of the International Space Station, it feels more like politicians trying to keep jobs in Florida prior to an election.   Provisions in the bill still prioritize commercial spaceflight on paper, but  being in the same breath as calling for more money to keep flying the Space Shuttle fleet, more money for developing new space vehicles, and more money to extend the life of the space station surely means commercial programs would end up taking a back-seat to government-controlled programs.   I can’t imagine Congress agreeing to double NASA’s budget, especially in the midst of our financial crisis.  -And if this agenda is approved without the funding, (which is what doomed Constellation in the first place,) it seems highly unlikely to me that NASA would prioritize its commercial contracts over its own fleet. 

Congressmen – what’s best for Florida may not be best for American spaceflight.  It’s time to put some faith back into private industry. 

Let’s see if entrepreneurs can go where no man has gone before.





Informed Consent Act shields private space firms in NM

9 03 2010

New Mexico has just signed into law the “Space Flight Informed Consent Act” – laying the foundation for shielding private spaceflight firms from retaliatory lawsuits in the event of an accident.  As lawsuits are one of the greatest threats to the private spaceflight industry, this legislative defense establishes a much-needed foundation.  Even though it only applies in New Mexico, (until future “spaceport” states follow suit,) I see the passage of this legislation as a fantastic sign that commercial space endeavours will be able to accept the risk inherent in spaceflight and continue moving forward.








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