Space Studies Institute
Update, The Newsletter of The High Frontier
SSI’s purpose is to colonize space. We believe that there is a commercial route to the High Frontier that will be profitable every step of the way. Profitability will ensure the continuation of private effort even when government efforts falter as they have faltered and must inevitably falter again. Can anyone doubt that our Moon flights would have continued had they been profitable? Without profits we can not be sure of the large continuous investment needed to settle space.
In 1979, Prof. Hans Moravec estimated that a supercomputer with computer power equal to a human mind might be produced by an Apollo scale effort within a decade. Next year, peak supercomputer power will exceed Hans’ estimate of the computing power of an individual human mind. In the event, it has indeed required hundreds of billions of dollars, but that Apollo scale effort required very little public funding. Most of the hundreds of billions of investment dollars required to develop today’s supercomputers came from semiconductor industry revenue over the intervening years. We believe that space tourism will produce the revenues for space industrialization and settlement just as semiconductor revenues did for supercomputer development.
No other space transportation market, solar power satellites excepted, promises the high flight rate needed to justify fully reusable vehicles. The difference between the space tourism market and the power satellite market is that the power satellite market requires an initial investment of tens to hundreds of billions of dollars whereas initial investment for the tourism market will be tens to hundreds of millions. Vigorous competition in the suborbital space travel market should allow rapid progress in vehicle economy and safety. And just as there was a smooth progression from the original Apple II to the Virginia Tech supercomputer, there should be a smooth progression from suborbital to orbital tourism. And that will lead to orbital hotels, a return to the Moon and the first permanent space settlements, irrespective of government efforts.
Because the Space Shuttle was not optimized to serve a profitable market, we have had a $500 billion and 35 year detour on the road to space settlement. The shuttle was designed to maintain aerospace industry employment and to fit within a budget that only permitted partial reusability. Its high recurring cost and two fatal accidents are the result of those decisions. Twenty years ago, we were hopeful that some variation of the SSI New Routes to Space Manufacturing plan utilizing the Shuttle and its external tank would be adopted and that we would now be successful in generating revenue from space solar power and the infrastructure necessary for initial space settlement. The cost of the Shuttle’s operations and unimaginative government policy put paid to that idea. It appears that we must begin anew, as though the shuttle never was, to build a mature Earth to orbit transportation system.
2004 has been a great year for private manned spaceflight. Three times, Burt Rutan, launched SpaceShipOne across the edge of space. On the third flight, Brian Binney took the winged suborbital altitude record and won the X prize. The innovative, reliable and safe SpaceShipOne demonstrated the power of his small, focused team to accomplish great goals.
Some in the media have misinterpreted the significance of these flights, believing that orbital flight is far out of reach. Their reasoning is that Mach 25 is needed for orbit and SpaceShipOne reached Mach 3.5, therefore, since energy is proportional to the square of the speed, about fifty times Space Ship One’s energy is required to achieve orbit. Low Earth orbit velocity is about 7800 m per second. To reach that low Earth orbit, however, a total delta V. of 9000 m to 10,000 m per second is required. The speed in excess of 7800 m per second is required to overcome drag and gravity losses. The quantity of these losses, of course, depends on details of the trajectory and acceleration. When drag and gravity losses are accounted for, Space Ship One achieved a total delta V. of more than 2300 m per second. That is about one order of magnitude of the energy necessary to achieve orbit. And as you can see, Space Ship One was much closer to achieving orbit than would be expected from a naïve interpretation of the ratio of its final velocity to orbital velocity.
The popular press also expresses doubts that the ferocious reentry heating problems can be solved. Burt told me that this is a vastly overstated problem, particularly for vehicles with a large surface area and low wing loading, like those he is building. Burt has a plan to make space travel cheap enough that everyone will know that he can go into space within 10 years and within 15 years every American will know that he may take a trip to orbit at least once. Within his working lifetime, Mr. Rutan intends to make travel to the moon cheap enough for a large fraction of Americans to afford. He has a 20 year plan and is working as hard as he can on it. As he has said, “We are headed for orbit sooner than you think.”
Burt is planning to devote the next two or three years to producing a safe and reliable suborbital tourist vehicle for his partner Richard Branson. Both Burt and Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR, believe that the lower limit of cost per kilogram to orbit using chemical rockets is three to five times the cost of propellant. That would be $130-$200 per kilogram for a mature system burning lox and kerosene. With a reasonable regulatory environment and government contracts for services plus competition from multiple companies we may approach that cost within a few vehicle generations. The Boeing Corp is confident that it could approach these costs now but they do not see a market that is large enough today to justify a fifteen billion dollar internal investment.
Other competitors in the suborbital manned spaceflight arena continue to make progress in the development of their vehicles. XCOR, Rocketplane Ltd., Armadillo Aerospace, and TGV Rockets all continue to design build and test their vehicles. Blue Origin continues to work in secrecy on a suborbital manned spacecraft.
Reusable orbital cargo vehicles are set to appear even before the next suborbital passenger vehicle flies. Spacex, a start-up company headquartered in El Segundo CA, continues to make progress toward the first Falcon 1 orbital flight in August, 2005. The first stage is planned to be reused and a larger derivative vehicle, the Falcon V, designed to carry six metric tons to orbit is scheduled to fly in the first quarter of 2006. Eventually, both stages of the Falcon V vehicle will be reusable. Spacex CEO Elon Musk expects the Falcon I to reduce the cost of transportation to orbit by a factor of ten, to about fifteen hundred dollars per pound. Some economic models predict significant demand elasticity in the market beginning at that price point.
The maiden launch of the Falcon V is scheduled to carry an engineering test article to prove the technology for a private inflatable space station. Intended primarily for microgravity research, it is to be launched later in this decade by Bigelow Airspace. Derived from NASA Transhab inflatable technology, Robert Bigelow expects his private space station to be operational in 2009.
Mr. Bigelow funded the America’s Space Prize, a $50 million purse for a reusable spaceship able to carry five persons to orbit and dock with his space station by January, 2010.
Some members of the SSI community formed Transformational Space Corp. or T-space, a consortium of lean and innovative companies nearly all of which have ties to the Institute. T- space is focused on transportation. Last week they submitted a proposed transportation architecture for a return to the Moon. Their architecture offers the possibility of large savings in transportation costs for an early return to the moon. A summary of the work, including vehicle graphics, is on the web at transformspace.com.
We have also made progress on the regulatory front. In the final hours of the last congressional session, the U. S. Senate passed H.R. 5382, whose long title is “To promote the development of the emerging commercial human spaceflight industry, and for other purposes.” This is critical enabling legislation for the development of a private manned spaceflight industry in the United States. Final passage of the legislation is a testament to the hard work and tenacity of Dana Rohrabacher, Jim Muncy, the Suborbital Institute and of the many other members of the SSI family who worked hard to craft this legislation and see it through the ups, downs and reverses of the political process. A copy of the bill and brief discussion of its provisions can be found at www.suborbitalinstitute.org
What does this impending reduction in space launch costs mean to SSI?
The historic role of SSI has been coordinating and performing critical path research to find a profitable path to space settlement. Space transportation appears close to entering a profitable positive feedback loop. A high launch rate with reusable vehicles will allow dramatic reductions in launch cost. The essential technologies of nonterrestrial resource identification and extraction and closed environment life-support systems have been neglected. There will soon be a critical need for some of the technologies SSI has been working to perfect. SSI President Freeman Dyson believes that demonstrating a robust CELS system is critical and should be SSI’s next goal. Our principal investigator, Professor William Jewell of the Department of Agricultural Engineering at Cornell University, believes that the next logical step is to produce a fully closed test unit. The cost for this test article and the associated investigations should be between $1.5 million and $2.5 million over a period of three to five years. We have as of yet, not been able to raise the necessary money. We are continuing to pursue promising avenues for funding since we believe that there would be a profitable market for a robust CELS system for the second generation of orbital hotels, if not the first. According to our model, CELS systems will be profitable for any space habitat in use for five years or more.
Over the next year we will be assembling, with the aid of our principal investigators, a prioritized and updated basic research plan to accomplish SSI’s long-term goal of settlement. We plan to update the New Routes to Space Manufacturing study. The plan will take into account research being performed by NASA, ESA, universities and nonprofits and the private for-profit sector. For example, as a spin-off from earlier SSI sponsored research, Dr. Robin Oder developed a magnetic beneficiation method for lunar regolith that boosted the helium 3 containing fraction by a large quantity.
We do require significant improvements in the robotic state-of-the-art to enable a vigorous space manufacturing enterprise. SSI continues to support the Lunar Icebreaker, designed to obtain ground truth about the hydrogen deposits discovered by SSI’s Lunar Prospector in dark craters near the lunar poles. Like Lunar Prospector it is a high leverage project and requires far more financial resources than SSI can afford.
We have had discussions with Red Whitaker at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon and have an agreement to pursue a mass driver setup by semi autonomous robots. This project would help demonstrate the feasibility of such robots in establishing off world mines and industrial infrastructure. We estimate the cost of the project to be low as these things go, since Red is very efficient but we have decided not to proceed yet for two reasons: we don’t have the money and recent developments in the commercial robot sector promise to reduce those costs by a large factor within the next few years. Hans Moravec believes so strongly in the value of a market focus that he founded Seegrid Corp. to jumpstart the commercialization of autonomous mobile robots. Within a few years, much of the robot development necessary for this project may be available off-the-shelf. The January, 2005, issue of Scientific American has a brief article discussing his ideas and the new corporation.
SSI desires to fly the Solar Blade, a four bladed heliogyro that would allow the CMU Robotics Institute team to learn to fly a solar sail spacecraft. The partnership would then undertake to design a second generation spacecraft that could rendezvous with multiple asteroids.
SSI director, Prof John Lewis estimates that about twenty close reconnaissance missions will be needed to understand the structure and composition of asteroids in sufficient detail to mine them or to divert them if necessary. According to Rusty Schweikart, Apollo astronaut and chairman of the B612 foundation, insufficient attention is presently given to determining the physical structure of asteroids to have confidence in schemes to divert threatening ones. He means insufficient attention in both ESA and NASA. Final construction and launch and operations are expected to cost several million dollars. We are patient and continue to look for partners and innovative ways to fly Solar Blade. As a point of reference, ten years passed between SSI’s design of Lunar Prospector and its launch to the Moon.
Asteroids have many different potentially valuable resources: water, hydrocarbons, and metals including the platinum group metals, essential supplies for conversion to a hydrogen economy. The discovery of a single asteroid of suitable composition in an appropriate orbit could jump start the deep space economy. The market could be life support or radiation shielding at space hotels, fuel for lox/hydrogen rockets, building materials for power satellites or space settlements or platinum group metals for supply to the earth.
SSI has joined other space organizations to support the President’s vision for space exploration. We have given our support to this redirection of NASA’s priorities for two reasons.
First, the Administration’s vision mentions space solar power and the use of nonterrestrial resources. Already, contracts supporting essential research and development have been signed. Funds are again starting to flow to in situ resource utilization, funding that had evaporated for a decade. As you may recall, SSI performed the first beneficiation of lunar regolith to demonstrate the feasibility of magnetic separation of mineral species, developed glass/glass composites and the explored a process to extract aluminum from lunar anorthite.
Second, the vision offers the possibility of a government market for private space services. Such a market, properly structured, could be analogous to the airmail market created by the Kelly Act of 1925-1929, which enabled formation of the air transportation industry. NASA could then become an anchor customer for new private sector space transportation companies.
The initial focus will be on a return to the moon. The President’s address included a specific reference to using the moon’s resources. In this, it is more farsighted than any previous speech. Since the publication of G.K. O’Neill’s plan to build solar power satellites from lunar resources, two other potential energy related resources have been identified on the moon. The first, helium 3, has been implanted in the lunar regolith since the moon’s formation. It is found in minute quantities, and may be extracted by heating quantities of beneficiated regolith and trapping the helium 3, along with much larger quantities of other volatile elements, in a cold trap. The helium 3 would then be transported to the earth to be burned in fusion reactors. The advantage of helium 3 fusion reactions is that they produce many fewer neutrons than deuterium/ tritium fusion reactions do. Since it produces few neutrons, the helium 3 reaction is unsuitable for breeding plutonium and the reaction forms much less radioactive waste in the reactor walls. There remain major uncertainties about the economics of fusion reactors. Nevertheless, helium 3 may be an attractive resource to investigate.
A second potential resource is platinum group metals that may exist in a sufficiently concentrated form to be extracted by straightforward techniques. A significant number of metallic near Earth asteroids should have collided with the moon at relatively low velocities and, therefore, may still be largely intact. If that is true, these platinum group metals might be profitably returned to Earth to enable a hydrogen economy. There are no known substitutes for platinum group metals as catalysts for hydrogen fuel cells.
Depending on the amount of platinum group metals required to generate kilowatt of electricity in a fuel cell, the quantity of platinum group metals required for a worldwide conversion to a hydrogen economy in this century may exceed the quantity available on the Earth. Remote sensing data that we possess regarding the moon is of insufficient quality to answer whether concentrated resources exist. SSI is advocating lunar resource mapping to answer this question. Our opinion is that certain metallic asteroids will eventually be a superior source of platinum group metals. A return to the moon, however, appears imminent and we hope it will be with enough men and equipment to determine the feasibility of mining platinum group metals.
Realization of the extent and importance of nonterrestrial resources to the improvement of the human condition on planet Earth has penetrated the minds of very few decision-makers. Few understand the limited nature of the platinum group metals resource on the earth neither do they understand the enormous quantities available from non-terrestrial resources. While it is clear that some of this demand can be met from existing mines, it is also clear that there will be environmental costs to pay.
We plan a workshop in the spring of 2005 to make recommendations for remote sensing to be done specifically in support of lunar development. We are pursuing an unmanned exploration agenda that will yield the necessary data to plan for nonterrestrial mining and the return of critical resources to the terrestrial economy. It is important to realize that most space probes are designed to answer a limited range of scientific questions, and are not designed specifically to give the kind of information that would be necessary to plan resource extraction. Lunar Prospector was the first probe expressly designed to answer a resource question. Academic scientists with no interest in nonterrestrial resources largely control NASA’s exploration agenda. Their interest is in answering scientific questions of importance to academics. We are attempting to steer some of the exploration effort in a more useful direction. We need a roadmap that will allow us to obtain required industrial materials from the moon.
To build a thriving commercial economy off the earth, and to found the first space settlements, we need to provide robust solutions to the problems of building a closed environment life-support system and developing robust workable and economical processes to yield satisfactory engineering materials. Neither of these broad problems, presently has a satisfactory solution and SSI has been a technical leader in both areas. It is plain that SSI’s efforts will continue to be needed, and further that there may be a real market for our expertise in both areas within the next 15 years. SSI’s underlying purpose has always been to provide the human race with new opportunities for freedom and prosperity through space settlement. To achieve this end, Gerry O’Neill said SSI’s purpose was to develop a plan, incorporated in a linear programming model to demonstrate the economic feasibility of nonterrestrial materials use and human settlements in space. Fortunately for us, our research community has expertise in the areas needed to forge the missing links in the chain.
Gerry O’Neill was very concerned that we begin work as soon as possible on a return to the moon and development of solar power satellite electricity supply to the earth. With the industrialization of China and India, there is even more reason to proceed rapidly to achieve that goal. As we have seen, the moon may provide not only a source of material for solar power satellites but also for helium 3 and the platinum group metals needed for other elements of a mixed energy economy.
In other news, SSI researchers presented a paper at the February, 2004 AIAA conference on asteroid impacts. The abstract follows.
Mass drivers are unique among engines developed for deep space transportation in that they do not require bringing along large masses of propellants. A major advantage of this approach is that all the energy can come from the sun and the reaction mass from the asteroid itself. We expect no design surprises; straightforward engineering should yield a mass driver of adequate performance for planetary defense. We focus on asteroids of 1 km in diameter or greater because those rare impactors are responsible for the large majority of casualties and economic damage expected from NEA strikes. Furthermore, to simplify the mining, we need large masses of finely comminuted regolith, which is most likely to be available on large rubble piles. Smaller asteroids may consist of bare rock and so are much more difficult to convert to usable reaction mass. We did not consider the deflection of comets because of the difficulty of rendezvous.
This scenario shows what may plausibly be done with near-term systems. The plan uses only equipment that is off-the-shelf or in advanced development at NASA. Launch vehicle technology is limited to existing launchers, including the Delta IV H. Upper stages are limited to existing stages and a derivative of the Orbital Recovery SEP tug. On-orbit assembly avoids the development of a new large booster.
Setting up a mine to provide thousands of tons of reaction mass on a body with complicated geology and geometry is a daunting task. Therefore, a human crew, with teleoperated robonauts, travels to the asteroid after pre-positioning of essential supplies and equipment. The crew inhabits a module developed for the ISS. In situ resource utilization (ISRU) is used to produce oxygen for the return to earth and to provide consumable oxygen during the extended stay on the asteroid. ISRU decreases the necessary mass to be transported to the asteroid and offers the potential for cost savings in rough proportion to the mass savings.
For most deflection circumstances, NEA translational kinetic energy is much greater than rotational energy. Therefore, the most effective strategy for deflection is to kill the rotation as soon as possible. De-spinning also permits full time use of the solar arrays and minimizes thermal cycling.
The first missions are probes to map the gravity field of the asteroid, the thickness of regolith and internal structure. A beacon attached to a lander guides cargoes to precision landings. The 35 ton crew module with a four person crew arrives later. The crew lands the habitat, attaches it to the asteroid and shields it with regolith. A critical first task is to secure a robust cable to the surface of the asteroid and girdle the asteroid with it. A rudimentary web allows reliable mining and transportation on the asteroid’s surface. Using robonauts, the crew sets up the induction furnace, power supplies, mining and beneficiation equipment and mass driver at the equator and begin the de-spin operation.
After de-spin is complete, the mass driver is lined up with velocity vector and translational thrusting begins. About one year later the velocity vector has been changed by 1 cm per second and the deflection mission is concluded. The crew packs up and heads for home.