Winter 2005

Space Studies Institute
Update, The Newsletter of The High Frontier

The maiden flight of Falcon 1, the first privately produced semi-reusable orbital launch vehicle, has been delayed several times by minor problems. Nonetheless, SpaceX is proceeding with development of its fully reusable launcher, Falcon 9, and still expects its launch price per pound to low Earth orbit to be below $500 by the end of the decade. This is good news since that price, about one-fourth of the cheapest launch price available today, is the threshold at which space launch demand becomes elastic.

The Commercial Space Transportation Study, released in 1994, projected that market demand would triple at that price. At a mature transportation price of from $30 to $50 per pound, the space transportation market was projected to be 10,000 launches per year. You can find the complete CSTS at www.hq.nasa.gov/webaccess/CommSpaceTrans. Also worth reading is a related study done in 2001 by Andrews Space and Technology that can be found at SpaceFuture.com.

I have just returned from Mojave where I found XCOR to be sitting on a mother lode of robust and reliable, inexpensive space transportation technology. There are other competent competitors in this market and we can be hopeful that a radical decrease in space launch costs is in view. This creates both challenges and opportunities for the Space Studies Institute. The challenge is that if the Institute is to be relevant to further space development, we must bring our several research projects through to working hardware. And we must do so in a timely way, so that when launch costs are low enough, we will have the technology available to make the earliest use of nonterrestrial resources. The opportunity is that there will be possibilities for SSI to commercialize some of its technologies.

How much investment would be necessary to put a supercomputer with the power of a Cray 1 on the desk of every American worker? If you had asked this question in 1968, the question itself would have been regarded as ridiculous. Such a powerful computer had never been built. The first megabyte of semiconductor memory was delivered to the MIT AI lab in that year for a price of $1 million or about $6.5 million in 2005 dollars. At those prices the memory alone would be $250 million. Yet, we know the answer to that question. It is $50,000 in 1968 dollars. That was the initial capitalization of the Intel Corporation. By 2005, Intel had produced enough computer chips of sufficient power to build the required number of computers.

The question is analogous to how much investment is necessary to allow every American in 2040 to travel to orbit. As soon as an enterprise is able to fund product improvements from revenue earned in the market, additional outside capital is not, strictly speaking, needed. We may be near such a moment in space transportation. We in the space community need to develop technologies that people are eager to buy and products that do not depend on the vagaries of politics for capital. That is the attraction of the suborbital spaceflight market. It allows beginning with low-performance vehicles and working up to orbit with increasingly capable ones. The profit from the first vehicles can fund more capable future ones. XCOR, Rocketplane and Masten Space Systems are taking this approach. This general idea is not limited to the development of new space vehicles. We should be looking carefully at the critical technologies needed to industrialize and settle space to see whether there are components that might be developed commercially and sold to provide capital for further developments.

If the space tourism market is as robust as SSI Director Eric Anderson believes it to be, then a spaceship company with the attributes of an Intel may be able to self fund to delivery of an orbital trip for one-1000th of the present price. Jay Penn and Charles Lindley of the Aerospace Corporation analyzed Earth to orbit chemical rocket launch technology and concluded that $15,000 was a reasonable mature price for a trip to LEO. Here is a reference to their paper at SpaceFuture.com

This insightful paper bears close reading. In it, you will find the underlying engineering reasons for present-day high launch costs. The cause of high space transportation costs are three interrelated things: a small total launch market, throw-away vehicles designed with minimum engineering margins, and a low flight rate.

All space launchers up to the present day have been optimized for minimum weight, not maximum reliability or minimum cost. Largely, that is because all present-day launchers are derivatives of ballistic missiles. For a single use vehicle, designed to reach enemy territory with maximum payload and minimum vehicle size, maximizing performance and minimizing weight at the expense of reliability and durability makes perfect sense. The engineering philosophy of minimizing weight and maximizing performance is nonsense for a vehicle designed to make thousands of flights to space.

To minimize weight, engineering margins must be minimized and, therefore, vehicle lifetime and operability must be sacrificed. Welding an engine together, rather than bolting components together, does yield minimum weight but permits neither inspection nor replacement or repair of components with short lifetimes. Increasing engineering margins by 10 percent prolongs the lifetime of a component by roughly an order of magnitude. An example of a related effect is that running the space shuttle main engine at 109 percent of its rated thrust decreases its lifetime by a factor of 10. Engineering for durability, inspection, and safety will increase weight somewhat but will dramatically cut costs for reusable vehicles.

A fallacy is that passengers and freight must be separated. That is true only if the current paradigm of expensive, marginal and unreliable throwaway rockets obtains. To be cheap, a vehicle must be safe. An unsafe vehicle, by definition, has a high rate of loss and even expendable vehicles are very expensive. Reusable vehicles, to serve commercial purposes, must be insurable at a cost that is affordable. Failure rates of greater than one in many thousands are unacceptable since they raise the cost per flight of both insurance and vehicle replacement too high to be affordable.

There appear to be several opportunities for SSI to leverage its inside knowledge of the space community to develop necessary pieces of technology that have a real possibility of making a profit to support further Institute activities. One of these may be to produce a cost-effective spacesuit suitable for use by suborbital space tourism companies. The present offerings have a prohibitively high cost or are in some other way unsatisfactory. Depending on the size of the market and initial R&D and construction costs, the sale of such pressure suits could provide a welcome income stream for the Institute.

Dr. Hans Moravec has joined SSI’s board of Senior Advisers. His company, SEEGRID, demonstrated the first commercial autonomous visually guided robot in Pittsburgh on December 1. The success of companies like SEEGRID will place commercial robots firmly on the Moore’s Law curve. Hans expects robots capable of behavior as complex as autonomous mining operations to appear as a normal commercial development within 15 years. Thanks to Hans’ good advice, we have delayed indefinitely the robotic mass driver set up demonstration that we had planned. It appears that this may not be necessary to advance the state-of-the-art and we will be able to use commercial off-the-shelf robots to perform this function without spending our limited funds on development.

This is another excellent example of leveraging scarce investment dollars to allow the incremental development of critical path space development technology.

The Institute is arranging the track at the next International Space Development Conference to be held in Los Angeles from May 4-7, 2006. This track will be similar to previous Princeton/SSI Space Manufacturing and Space Settlement conferences. We plan to publish a volume of the proceedings similar to the 13 volumes of the Space Manufacturing series.

List of SSI research topics:

Mini space colony or large space hotel

One substantive criticism of the O’Neill Island One colony is the structure is so large that it requires an initial investment of hundreds of billions of dollars. It would be useful to design a minimal permanent space colony incorporating artificial gravity. Should it be baselined for nonterrestrial materials or Earth launched? SSI performed some preliminary work under Gerry O’Neill’s direction before his death. SSI Senior Adviser Burt Rutan thinks we may need to build a superbooster to get a big hotel in orbit all at once, with no significant on orbit construction. Is he right? Can we show a reasonable way to construct a large pressure vessel in orbit from smaller pieces? Space hotels would be the initial market. Another possible market would be asteroid mines.

CELSS for space hotel

This technology needs sufficient artificial gravity to allow easy handling of liquids and separation of liquid and gas phases to function; otherwise, we could look forward to a real commercial market for this technology within six years. If Peter Diamandis’ optimistic scenario comes to pass, there will be a market on the Moon within ten to fifteen years. This is my favorite project for SSI for the next five years. We do need a large capital infusion to do it. According to Professor William Jewell, the next sensible step is to build a fully closed system. The total cost is estimated to be in the $3 to $5 million range.

Water condenser for space hotel, a CELSS subsystem

There might be some interesting ways to improve on the state of the art. This subsystem might have a separate market, for example, U.S military and desert dwellers in the Southwest.

Other CELSS subsystems

The anaerobic digesters might be a commercial source of methane but sulfur content must be reduced.

Designs for NEO probes to be dispatched to assay mineralogy and physical properties

Gerry O’Neill recommended such a project nearly fifteen years ago. SSI Director Professor John Lewis believes that more than 20 such asteroid visits will be necessary to get sufficient data on their physical and chemical characteristics to understand their potential and threat. This study would be the analog of the Lunar Prospector design. We are discussing a workshop to set requirements for a preliminary design.

Design and prototype for mass driver reaction engine incorporating state-of-the-art ultracapacitors and solid-state switches to move asteroids

We have a competent engineer who is excited about doing it and the exercise will give us a good handle on the new ultracapacitor and switching technology.

Asteroid mining mission

This would be a paper study similar to “New Routes to Space Manufacturing”. Everybody likes planetary bodies but it would be good to see some evangelism for NEOs, too.

Design of sky survey designed to look for threatening or mineable asteroids or comets

The survey methodology needs to be updated to incorporate technology suitable for locating comets beyond the orbit of Jupiter. We need an in space telescope to look for Atens and that space telescope should give us a look at the areas where additional Earth Trojans may be lurking.

Design of equipment and processes to extract PGMs from asteroids

This application may become a profitable enterprise in space sooner than we think, especially if tourism causes launch costs to drop dramatically and if we can find a good candidate asteroid. The equipment should also be useable on the Moon if we should discover chunks of metallic asteroid lying around in locations amenable to mining.

Engineering materials from nonterrestrial resources

This is still a large and critical need in order to begin to establish a manufacturing base founded on nonterrestrial resources. SSI is pioneered much of the original research in this area, and we are evaluating what projects make sense and in what timeframe they should be done.

New powersat designs based on asteroidal materials

Thermal dynamic systems may still be an economic competitor to solar photovoltaics or thermionics.

Solar sail spacecraft

We’ve started a project, Solar Blade, but need money to fly. A second generation Solar Blade should be able to carry out multiple asteroid rendezvous in preparation for asteroid mining.

Powersat demo model

A design study would be useful.

Self replicating systems

SSI continues to be interested in the design of partial self replicating systems. We do not have any specific plans to pursue them now.

Quantitating the advantages of orbital assembly of satellites

Satellites should cost much less than they do. If they did not have to withstand the rigors of launch intact and did not have to self deploy and if they could be checked out on orbit before release they could be much, much cheaper.

SSI does not yet have the resources to pursue all of these subjects this year. Some may be undertaken in partnership with our colleagues in other space societies.

A few more successes in the space transportation arena will make all of these things seem much more real to philanthropists and investors.