Calling the Space Privateers

6 09 2012

Closeup of pioneering planetary geologist Jack Schmitt at the LRV (Lunar Rover) with Earth overhead during Apollo 17 Lunar EVA #3. (Credit: NASA)

Today, I’d like to offer a rejoinder to Michael Hanlon’s article from The Telegraph a couple of weeks back, entitled, “There’s only one question for NASA: Is anybody out there?

In it, Hanlon offers an argument against regular human space exploration in favor of dedicated robotic missions devoted exclusively to astrobiology research.  Whether via orbiters, landers, rovers, or telescopes, he argues that working to answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe has the advantages of  “being scientifically valid, being relatively cheap and connecting with the public imagination.”

Some concessions about the efficiency of human explorers aside, Hanlon makes it perfectly clear how he feels about all research that isn’t astrobiology-related, deriding the Space Shuttle program as “pointless” and the International Space Station as an “orbiting white elephant.”  He lauds the recent spectacular landing of the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, as a model mission, while dismissing the broad appeal of human exploration to the public as “nebulous” and merely “vicarious excitement.” 

Well, despite Hanlon’s opnion, there are good and valid reasons to support human space exploration.   Because the manned-versus-unmanned space program argument has been done to death, I won’t rehash the whole diatribe here except to offer three quotes:

  • “Robots are important also. If I don my pure-scientist hat, I would say just send robots; I’ll stay down here and get the data. But nobody’s ever given a parade for a robot. Nobody’s ever named a high school after a robot. So when I don my public-educator hat, I have to recognize the elements of exploration that excite people. It’s not only the discoveries and the beautiful photos that come down from the heavens; it’s the vicarious participation in discovery itself.”  — Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • “The greatest gain from [human] space travel consists in the extension of our knowledge. In a hundred years this newly won knowledge will pay huge and unexpected dividends.” — Werner von Braun
  • “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” — Arthur C. Clarke/Larry Niven

However, there is a much more intriguing aspect to Hanlon’s article, one that likely went largely unnoticed; A particular line in Hanlon’s article caught my eye, where he supercedes the tired, man vs. machine debate and instead advises that NASA should “leave the flag-planting, for now, to the privateers and to other nations.”

The privateers!

To my knowledge, this is amongst the first times the word has been used in a human space exploration context.  Let’s take a closer look.

The SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is pictured just prior to being released by the International Space Station’s Canadarm2 robotic arm on May 31, 2012 for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: NASA)

In its 16th-to-19th-century context, “privateer” referred to a private individual or seafaring ship authorized by a government during war to attack foreign trade shipments.  These charges weren’t the equivalent of a charter, as the privateering ships went unpaid by the government.  Instead, they relied on investors who were willing to gamble on lucrative captured goods and enemy ships. 

This made the privateer fundamentally different from a mercenary.  In my mind, they became something more akin to Adventure Capitalists.

While not a direct parallel, the usage of this term in the modern space exploration context invokes tantalizing suggestions.  Might the government issue a non-binding license to claim unused space resources (satellites, junk) by their own or other nations, or perhaps to operate in proximity to national assets, (such as the ISS), in the act of attempting a rescue?

In this case, would private industry underwrite the cost of a spacecraft launch for tens of millions of dollars if the case for a suitable potential reward be made?  Might such a reward be measured in terms of salvaged materials or serviced satellites?  Perhaps purchasing a rocket and a spacecraft to have on standby in the event of an on-orbit astronaut emergency (medical, technical) would be lucrative if a successful rescue mission were independently launched and the crew recovered?  (Is a modest 100-200% return-on-investment too much to ask for the value of averted disaster and the possible loss of highly-trained human lives?)  In this context, venturing to fund a privateer is no more risky than drilling an exploratory oil well – the trick is nailing the reward. 

“Space Privateering,” then, suggests a new form of orbital venture capitalism that exists irrespective of government charters.  It means having a ship, a launch capability, and the foresight to use them when and where it might matter most to planetside governments and/or corporations.

So, how about it?  Are any corporations willing to bet against the house and fund privateers as international rescue, salvage or repair ships?  Would the FAA consider rapid privateer launch licensing?

I say we work to find out.  Calling all space privateers!

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Room with a (global) view

3 11 2011

When you gaze outside of your spacecraft, what do you see?

What’s it really like to be there?

With the advent of digital photography in the hands of determined astronauts willing to make time to steal moments to snap images like the above, now we can know. 

Have a look.  Blow the image up with a click.  You’re really just sitting there, looking out the window; A perfectly mundane act performed from an extraordinary vantage.

This reality represents (to me, anyway) one of the most inspirational aspects of 21st-century human space exploration: for the first time, the human experience of spaceflight is being not just communicated but also shown to those of us on the planet surface in real-time (via Twitter, for example,) to great effect.

I believe it is the responsibility of those who support and/or are professionally involved in space exploration to promote imagery like the above, for I truly believe it will be via exposure to this media that the next generation of planetary explorers will be engaged to careers in the student-starved sectors of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (see: STEM).
 
-And the more ordinary orbital space feels, not only will the goals of work off-world feel attainbale, perhaps the next generation will be even more compelled to see the world as a fragile, interconnected system and seek out the extraordinary in their experiences farther beyond…




Year 2069 on the Moon: Fort Rille

23 10 2010

My ShiftBoston Moon Capital Competition entry. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Well, being that the Moon Ball is already past us and I my inbox hasn’t lit up, I imagine I didn’t win anything and it’s safe to submit my concept of “Fort Rille” to the world.   What is it, exactly?  It’s a concept for a future lunar settlement (year 2069, 100 years after Apollo 11,) that I entered in ShiftBoston’s Moon Capital Competition.

I don’t think the concept was far-out enough to please the judges, frankly.  (-And I have my suspicions that, not being a graphic designer, my artwork may have held me back as well…)  However, I do think this is exactly what our first settlements will look like.  Much like the Old West and turn-of-the-20th-Century exploration expeditions after which my concept was modeled, life will be rough, exciting, fulfilling, and a little dangerous.

Highlights include hybrid solar and betavoltaic battery power systems, Earth-telecommuter-controlled robots and roving lifeboats to help out, sunglasses to protect against high-intensity glare, and ubiquitous polymer-based duster-style jackets for weight, warmth, and radiation protection.

The contest designers wanted something a little less practical, I imagine.  I just couldn’t stop myself from creating what I think we’ll actually see in another 50 years.  (And yes, you might note that the “fort” isn’t military, and the more lunar-savvy amongst you might also object that while the settlement is called “rille,” it isn’t on a rille – it’s in a crater.  But that wasn’t the point.  I just thought the name captured the right feel of the place.)

Go ahead and take a look.  If you’d like, let me know what you think.

I may be projecting, but I imagine some pretty cool science and blues would (will?) come out of a place like this.  Which, of course, naturally go hand-in-hand.





Why try to become an astronaut / astrowright?

27 08 2010

 

Two NASA astronauts participate in construction and maintenance activities on the International Space Station; May 21, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When I reveal what my professional aspirations really are, I get this question a lot.  -More than most would probably imagine.

What with the risks and the trials, the personal expense and the unknowns, why seriously work to venture into a frontier where so many of the necessities of life are nonexistent?

Sure, people talk and joke about being an astronaut when they grow up, but if-and-when one really considers going – when forced to really, seriously consider the realities of space travel in the modern era – people shy away.

The thought can be frightening.  It’s new.  For the most part, human space exploration is still in its infancy, and there are considerable (and likely unconsidered) risks.

Beyond the necessity of riding a controlled explosion out of the atmosphere, so much of what we take for granted, like air, water, food, atmospheric pressure, warmth…  It must all be taken with you.  Emphasizing the point, one of my closest friends (and a fellow astrophysics student at the University of Wyoming at the time) used to call me crazy for even considering leaving the comforts of planet Earth.  It definitely wasn’t for him.

So, for the sake of what is perhaps only a little introspective clarity, here it is:  Why do I want to leave?

Basically, I feel a compulsion toward the unknown.  While the dark, foreboding abyss beyond our current understanding and knowledge is terrifying to many (most?) of us, there’s another way to look at the coin.   For while the unknown may harbor risks and dangers, the unknown is also a place where anything is possible.  That’s where the discoveries are made.

The sensation of true discovery, (which admittedly I’ve only gotten a taste of once or twice,) is particularly intoxicating to me.  I don’t want to spend my life reading about others forging into the unknown; I want to be there, where the action is, where new history is being made.

Striking off into the blank spaces of our knowledge and experience, surprises are in store.  -And in a word made so much smaller by our mastery of global communication and connectedness, where so much in life is now predictable, surprises are a rare thrill.

I’ve had enough of studying what other have studied before, seeing what countless others have seen before.  For science, for posterity, for enhancing our understanding, and for sheer, personal desire, I want to be one of the ones to set human eyes on things for the first time.

A new life and everything that comes with it awaits above – new politics and policy, new science and new commerce, new challenges and victories – it is all ready and waiting for us to arrive to experience it.

That, my compatriots, is why I want to get off the rock.

I invite you to join me.





(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.





Space: The Northern Frontier

23 05 2010

So, you want to build a rocketship?

-Lines like these are sprinkled across advertisements during the 1960s for everything from whiskey to sprinkler manufacturers, painting themselves as part of a brighter future.  So, with expectations 50 years ago set so high, in many respects the 21st Century to them would be something of a disappointment.

However, we’re starting to rise to the challenge of our fathers’ imaginations, and for those with starry-eyed dreams of spacecraft shipyards and a future on orbit, Frontier Astronautics of Chugwater, Wyoming may be your answer.

Wyoming Atlas-E silo, ca. 1960s. Credit: Frontier Astronautics

Utilizing a converted Atlas-E missile silo, the young, first-of-its-kind corporate space development company offers a full spectrum of spacecraft development services and products, from indoor and outdoor rocket engine test areas, vehicle design and assembly services, onsite cranes, a machine shop and storage space, and they even produce commercial quantities of rocket-grade hydrogen peroxide onsite.  To top it off, they’re in the process of applying for an official FAA space launch site license, making them the second private spaceport in the country (if approved).

Check them out.  Tell your friends.  Keep your rocket dreams alive, or perhaps let your imagination take flight for the first time.  This place is real.

I know in my bones that it’s outfits like these that will change the space game forever.








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