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.

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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.)





Reincarnation Exists! -Bigelow Aerospace and Von Braun’s Project Horizon

28 05 2010

History never fails to surprise and amaze me.  While there is serious talk today regarding the logistics of setting up a lunar base and whispers of Bigelow Aerospace pushing their inflatable habitats as the right modules to compose one, I was awed and humbled when I recently learned that we’ve done this research before.

Half a century ago, in fact.

 

Robert Bigelow explaining a model depicting a Bigelow Aerospace lunar outpost. (Credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

Many of us are familiar with the name Wernher von Braun as the father of the American space effort.  However, just how advanced his early efforts were is not common knowledge.  Take Project Horizon, for example.  Horizon is a little-known study conducted by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, led by Wernher von Braun in 1956, which detailed the specific logistics, processes and challenges of constructing and manning a US outpost on the Moon in shocking detail.  (Shocking to me, anyway, considering that this project was produced shortly after my father was born.)

Army Ballistic Missile Agency officials. Werner von Braun is second from right. (Credit: NASA)

In short, Project Horizon was nothing less than visionary.  (While it proposed the creation of a military base on the moon, we should be reminded that this was two years prior to the creation of NASA, and the military was the only place to find rockets of any sort.)  According to the project’s projections, a small logistical space station would be constructed in Earth orbit using spent rocket tanks, and the lunar base would have been constructed of simple, pressurized cylindrical metal tanks, with the program requiring approximately 140 SATURN rocket launches during the course of three years.  The project is exhaustive, defining with striking clarity the equipment and astronaut tool requirements to accomplish the work, space transportation systems and ideal orbits for them, lunar habitat design requirements, and even new launch sites from Earth to optimize the program.  Most impressive is the fact that it looks like they could have actually done it for the cost they proposed, which was just less than two percent of the annual US military defense budget of their time.

For an even more humbling window into the conceptual fortitude of Horizon, let’s take a look at their rationale for building a lunar base in the first place (NASA – take note):

  • Demonstrate US scientific leadership
  • Support scientific investigations and exploration
  • Extend space reconnaissance, surveillance, and control capabilities
  • Extend and improve communications and serve as a communications relay (4 years prior to the world’s first communications relay satellite was lauched!)
  • Provide a basic and supporting research laboratory for space research and development activities
  • Develop a stable, low-gravity outpost for use as a launch site for deep space exploration
  • Provide an opportunity for scientific exploration and development of a space mapping and survey system
  • Provide an emergency staging area, rescue capability, or navigation aid for other space activity.
  • Serve as the technical basis for more far-reaching actions, such as further interplanetary exploration.

With a short list like this, the project sounds to me even more worthwhile than the current International Space Station, (which, I should note, satisfies Horizon’s orbiting space station requirements…) But, the project gets better still.  Horizon went so far as to select potential locations for the outpost based on the most cost-effective orbital trajectories, (between +/- 20 degrees latitude/longitude from the optical center of the Moon,) and they even set up a detailed construction and personnel timeline, which to me reads like a novel:

October, 1963 – SATURN I rocket program is operational, and launches of Horizon orbital infrastructure material and equipment begin.  Construction begins on an austere space station with rendezvous, refueling, and launch capabilities only (no life support), which will allow larger payloads to be delivered to the moon.  Astronauts working on assembly at the space station will live in their earth-to-orbit vehicle during their stay.  A final lunar outpost candidate site is selected.

December, 1964 – SATURN II rocket program is operational, and a total of 40 launches have been conducted in support of Project Horizon so far.  Construction of a second refueling and assembly space station begins using additional spent rocket stages, which can accelerate orbital launch operations.  The first space station is enhanced with life support capability, allowing for longer astronaut stays (if desired/necessary).

January, 1965 – Cargo deliveries from the space station(s) to the lunar outpost site begin.

April, 1965 – The first two astronauts land at the lunar outpost site, where cargo and infrastructure buildup has already been taking place.  (Their lander, it is noted, has immediate return-to-Earth capability, but only in the case of an emergency.  These guys are intended to be pioneers until the advance construction party arrives.)  Living in the cabin of their lander, the initial two astronauts make use of extra supplies already delivered to the site, while they verify both that the environment is satisfactory for a future outpost as well as that all necessary cargo has been delivered successfully.  The length of this tour is at most 90 days.  Cargo and infrastructure deliveries continue.

July, 1965 – The first nine-astronaut advance construction party arrives.  After a hand-off and requisite celebratory send-off, the original two lunar astronauts depart for Earth and the new crew begins Horizon’s 18-month outpost construction phase.  Groundbreaking begins, as the crew uses previously-delivered lunar construction vehicles to move and assemble the previously-delivered habitation modules and manage future deliveries.  Habitation quarters are established, small nuclear reactor electricity generators are placed in protective pits and activated, and the station becomes operational within the first fifteen days.  Crews are kept on 9-month rotations, and cargo and infrastructure deliveries continue.

December, 1965 – After six months of construction activities, the Horizon outpost is composed of several buried (for radiation and thermal protection) cylindrical modules as living quarters for the initial crew as well as a parabolic antenna station for Earth communications.  The main quarters and supporting facilities are being assembled, which will also ultimately be covered with lunar regolith.  Empty cargo and propellant containers are being used for the storage of bulk supplies and life essentials.  The crew is brought up to a full twelve astronauts.

December 1966 – Construction activities are complete, Horizon outpost is fully operational with a twelve-astronaut crew on staggered nine-month rotations.  Capital expenditures have concluded, and funding is reduced to operations-only to allow secondary projects (Mars missions, etc.).

1968, TBD – Expansion construction activities begin on Horizon outpost…

Anyone else as jazzed as I am reading this stuff?  Project Horizon was dutifully methodical, practical even.  Horizon could have actually happened, knowing what we know now about von Braun, the future Apollo mission successes, and the success of the SATURN I and SATURN V rockets…

And yes, it appears that the soul of ol’ Horizon lives today in the heart of Bigelow Aerospace’s lunar ambitions.  Let’s hope they can carry von Braun’s torch all the way back to the Moon.








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