Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A New Barnstorming Age: the Near Future of Manned Spaceflight

For a recent interview I was asked where is manned spaceflight headed in the near term? Having just had lunch with astronaut Steve Hawley, while headed for the Mayan calendar festival, I figure I'll post this mix of old and brand new items.  Thrive and persevere in optimism!

There certainly is a lot of buzz about big changes in manned spaceflight in the news. From space hero-pioneer Elon Musk ruminating about self-sustaining colonies of 80,000 people on Mars... to a startup called Golden Spike  that seeks to purchase government and commercial vehicles to offer flights - and even landings - on the Moon (two tickets to the moon, yours for $1.5 billion). Then there's Mars One, a Dutch company that hopes to launch a series of robotic missions to Mars that will construct outposts on the surface. Humans will follow by 2023. Part of the funding may come from reality media  -- filming the astronaut training and interactions. Big Brother on Mars?

Okay -- let me say that I see two drivers and two paths ahead for human spaceflight, one slow and plodding, the other quick and exciting.  Both will be needed. Each will benefit from the other.

en_0805_blackstone_480x360Ever since Challenger blew up, NASA's meticulous approach to manned spaceflight has been to redouble caution. To fill in each missing step, then the sub-phases between each step. After Columbia, this fill-in-every-gap method has led to such flawless undertakings as the recent Curiosity lander's spectacular (and spectacularly complicated) landing on Mars.

But that was just a robot.  When human lives are at stake, the process becomes so carefully mature that - in effect - nothing gets flown at all. At minimum, human-rating every component multiplies costs by as much as two orders of magnitude, in some cases. Let's be plain. If this were humanity's only path to human spaceflight, countless thorny problems and sub-problems would be vanquished!  But nothing would ever actually fly with people aboard.

Fortunately, through this process NASA keeps developing new technologies.  So do the civilian world, foreign governments and the military.  These improvements trickle - or gush - and spread. New thresholds have been reached in computers and sensors, in equipment capability and reliability. And in plummeting hardware prices.

One result? We are ready for the dawn of a new era, one of private space ventures. And, fortunately, the politicians seem perfectly ready to welcome non-state activity.  Instead of raising obstacles, the present administration seems bent on clearing a path.

694662main_logo425From the Rutan/Branson Spaceship to Elon Musk's SpaceX, there are dozens of private manned and unmanned missions being planned. Some of them leverage upon the desire of the rising caste of super-rich for unusual experience, starting with sub-orbital jaunts.  Plans are in motion to extend this market, leading downstream to space hotels and - eventually - private moon landings. The new Planetary Resources company plans to access the vast wealth of asteroids.

All of these things can be done now because technological thresholds are falling... and also because they can allow higher risk ratios, because private ventures aren't answerable to the same levels of enforced care as public ones.  The cost effects of allowing part failure rates in the one-millionth probability - instead of on-billionth - is nothing short of astronomical.

== A New Barnstorming Age? ==

We may, at last be ready to embark on the equivalent of the the great age of barnstorming aircraft development, that our grandparents saw in the 1920s, when risk - and even some loss - was considered part and parcel of courage and exploration. When the new frontier was legitimate territory for tinkerers (albeit, today they would be billionaire tinkerers).

If so, it will have come about from a mix of government investment in meticulous process and checklisting a myriad details... meshing well with the unleashing of private ambition. No example so perfectly disproves the idiotic canard that everything must be all-government... or else that government is evil and wholly uncreative.  We are a complex people in a complex age.  But we can rise above comforting nostrums to realize, a careful mix was how we got everything we see around us. A mix that is negotiated by goal-driven grownups - that is how we'll get farther ahead.

== What are pros/cons of each approach? ==

SpaceShipONeThe Branson/Rutan "Spaceship One" approach, and others like it, have the advantage of paying for themselves incrementally, improving their methods and capabilities in the same way. Those offering suborbital jaunts won't have to answer to taxpayers or budget committees. If Branson and Rutan and the others deliver a safe and peerless experience, the wealthy will thrust money at them, hand-over-fist doing us all a favor by recycling some of it into something useful and cool. (Like oxygen, water, food... too much accumulated anything becomes toxic.)

Some of us will also go too, through prizes and lotteries (and gifts to favorite authors?) Calling Fantasy Island!

AME_0003And their next products will emerge in a matter of due course.  Orbital hotels and - quicker than you now might expect - private moon landings. These missions will be of very little scientific value.  But they will leverage technologies developed by NASA and others, transforming them into off-the-shelf tools and something that today's NASA is ill-equipped to do -- actual, risk-taking human crewed expeditions. (All of it perhaps presaged by the Robert Heinlein novel The Man Who Sold The Moon.)

In time, this will transform into own-your-own sub-orbital rocket kits, as I portray in an early chapter of EXISTENCE.  (See this portrayed via some cool images in the vivid preview-trailer.)

SpaceX and others are counting on winning contracts to deliver commercial and government payloads into orbit, predictably and reliably. This will soon include human crews for the Space Station.  The Dragon capsule will not be optimized for paying private customers seeking a "yeehaw" experience.  But I expect there will be some such, as well.

Way back in 1982 I headed a team at the California Space Institute that outlined an alternative space station design, using Space Shuttle External Tanks, that would have been soooooo sweet.  Just five launches would have led to a station larger than the present one and far more capable.  Ah,well.  The tanks are gone.  (But sample the wondrous possobilities with my short story: "Tank Farm Dynamo"!)

Still, some of the new inflatable structures and composites being developed at L'Garde as well as UCSD's new Structural and Materials Engineering building may lead to new, commercial stations that offer hotel experiences in the sky.  And even though the moon is sterile scientifically and for physical wealth (and offers almost no benefits as a "way station"), it may (as said earlier) be enough of a tourist allure to propel us back to that sere, but romantic (if largely useless) destination.

== What about the Old Dream? Missions to Mars? ==

SpaceXOh, we will poke away at the big stuff.  Certainly the shift away from a return-to-the-moon boondoggle, which almost no scientist on Earth supported, was a step in the right direction.  And with private capitalists salivating over asteroids, it does look as if the choice to look that was was a correct one.

NASA will keep developing the technologies we'll need for missions to asteroids, to Phobos (potentially one of the most valuable rocks in the Solar system), and eventually Mars.  We could afford to spend twice what we do and pick up the pace.  The payoffs - just for remembering we're a scientific civilization - would be overwhelming.

screen_shot_2012-03-09_at_9_25_48_am-4f5a10c-intro-1Oh, and of course other nations than the self-centered US will be part of this mix, in ever-greater force.  In EXISTENCE I portray manned spaceflight getting a nationalist impetus when the Chinese start flexing their competence and muscle out there It could help propel interesting times.

Still I was asked about just human spaceflight in the near term.  And the near term to me looks commercial, private, bold, close-to-home, rather lavishly exclusive...

...but fun.


Tony Fisk said...

What would be the market for public access to small remote controlled 'bots; just to mess about with? A bit like 'Spyders in Space'?

Alex Tolley said...

Is the moon really that useless? It could be used to test equipment and techniques that could be used on Mars.

The [small amount of] lunar water at the poles has value as a resource. Even the regolith has value for constructing space habitats, even if only for shielding.

I'm encouraged that Virgin Galactic is courting scientists for science missions as part of its commercial mix. Lower cost access to space should also be attractive to scientists.

Nasa should focus on pathfinding and R&D that would benefit the private space ecosyetem.

Ian Gould said...

I think you're ignoring the panda in the room, David.

Tim H. said...

I think Dr. Brin is not ignoring "The panda in the room", he's speaking about what he knows best. Today, the Chinese can't launch as inexpensively as Elon Musk, but who knows about the near future? The Chinese bust their backsides to improve their game at everything they do.

Acacia H. said...

Yes, but if the SABRE (Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) and Skylon spaceplane end up being successes, then we'll likely see the Brits becoming the new go-to folks for going to orbit - afterall, a reusable spaceplane that doesn't require an external fuel tank and can be used on a weekly basis would massively cut costs.

Which isn't to discount the Falcon rocket and SpaceX, mind you - the Skylon has some limitations for payload and the like, while rockets have the brute force to put significant cargos into orbit with the momentum to get into high Earth orbit.

And to be honest, I do see the Moon as an excellent place for experiments that maybe shouldn't be performed on Earth. Heck, I could see a new TV show based on that: Space 2099 in which the Moon is shunted from the Earth's orbit after experimental studies into FTL fields went out of control and zapped the entire Moon into another solar system... ;) (Hey, it's a far more "realistic" scenario than nuclear explosions driving the Moon away (rapidly) from the Earth...)

Paul451 said...

Tony Fisk,
"What would be the market for public access to small remote controlled 'bots"

"Public" access, like space "tourism", I think gives the wrong impression. It's not about school-children driving a RC buggy on the moon for 30 seconds each to promote STEM, nor wealthy tourists floating in space; it's getting the price down to the point where independent researchers, explorers, hobbyists, as well as universities and small nations, can fund their own work without it being a "space program". Where the cost of ordering a lunar rover is low enough that a researcher in Australia can pay for it out of the normal grant process, to follow his own line of research, rather than spend 15 years trying to get an instrument to fly on someone else's rover. Where a small engineering company can afford to fly themselves and their prototype into orbit to test how it functions in zero g, because it's cheaper to test in space than build/hire a facility capable of simulating the conditions in space. Where your "EVA training facility" is in low Earth orbit.

Alex Tolley,
"Is the moon really that useless? It could be used to test equipment and techniques that could be used on Mars."

Not much equipment suitable for the moon would be usable on Mars, and vice-versa.

"Even the regolith has value for constructing space habitats, even if only for shielding."

But what is the purpose of the space habitats? Other than their own existence, like the ISS.

We need stepping stones that justify and pay for themselves, and which then make the next step more affordable. A process that is aided by, but ultimately doesn't depend on, a major national space program. NASA does aeronautical research for the US airline industry, but no one needs to do public outreach to justify airlines. Having NASA do COTS/Commercial Crew is a major step forward. Having NASA do SLS is a major step backwards. NASA's work on Transhab was good, NASA's continuing to maintain ISS without any upgrade path or justification is bad. (It doesn't stimulate the industry, nor incrementally add new capabilities, it just... continues. Like the shuttle before it.)

Paul451 said...

Spider builds a fake bigger spider out of twigs and dead insects, presumably to ward off predators.


Paul451 said...

Forgot to add, the spider jiggles the web, so its decoy moves.

Acacia H. said...

Actually, you discount the Moon. You see, there is one problem both the Moon and Mars shares and which would need to be dealt with: dust and "soil." Lunar soil is abrasive and the dust is electrically charged and sticks to any surface it comes in contact with. It could have adverse health effects on astronauts (lunanauts?) and adversely effect gaskets and wiring. Martian dust could theoretically contain biological contaminants hazardous for human life and might theoretically cause problems for gaskets and electronics that aren't sealed away.

If you find a solution for Lunar dust and dirt, you have a solution that could be worked for Martian dust and dirt.

There is one significant benefit to the Moon that is also discounted by Dr. Brin and others but ultimately is its biggest boon: its gravity well. Microgravity is harmful to human physiology. But lower levels of gravity could possibly benefit people working in that environment... and it would be quite easy to build a space elevator for the Moon to reach its surface and go back into orbit.

In short, the Moon becomes a place where people live inbetween working in zero-g environments. And it's far easier to build a protected structure under the Moon's surface than a large rotating space station which could be holed by space debris from comets, asteroids, and the like.

Rob H.

Unknown said...

I think there is a missing interim step in all of this.... Given all of the drones we now use for surveillence and warfare, why is no-one talking about a step of drone resource collection & refining before man get's there.... Set up the trading post before the humans get there to need it. Indeed - set up the habitat using drones and robots who gather & refine resources before man arrives on Mars. In the case of the moon - there is enough junk there to start a small scrap yard for the future colonies.

Even make a game out of it - xbox or PC connectivity..... pilot your own resource gathering drone on the moon or mars.... Sell your gathered resources to your local conglomerate drone....

Given how much time people blow on FB Farmville, imagine if they were actually controlling the efforts of real drones and earning some coin for it. There's a book there somewhere or at least an interesting business case study for Harvard to toy with. This could break the lunar commodities market wide open.

Alfred Differ said...

It doesn't matter much whether scientists support Moon projects. If we do much there in the near future it will be for engineering purposes. There IS still plenty of science to be done, but the Moon's value to us as a space-faring civilization has more to do with it being a useful port and cheap source of delta-vee. We don't have to foresee its uses, though. Future innovators will or won't based on the problems they need to solve.

There is a lot more going on besides SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. There is a spectrum of processes too. It's not all the super careful checklist stuff David describes. Most of the people I know use their checklists, but they aren't long until failures drive them to change them. Even then, they try to shorten the lists again using automation as the agent that checks the boxes. 8)

locumranch said...

Assuming that global infrastructure lasts long enough to bootstrap us into high orbital arcologies, the potential for technological abuse and misuse remains immense.

For inherent in the positive aspects of a SpaceX, Salvage1 or a SABRE-like spacecraft, there resides the potentially negative consequence of an intercontinental ballistic bomber, a North Korean "Unha-3" or an orbital weapons platform.

History shows us that any technological advance is the moral equivalent of a loaded gun which can be used for good and/or ill depending on the inclination of the operator.

A rifle with superior operating characteristics can be used to hunt game or slaughter school children; a commercial aircraft with an impressive range & safety record can be repurposed into a crude but effective World Trade Center destroyer; and common chemical compounds can be used to make exotics inks or Zyklon B.

Although our future may either be Star Trek rosy or Terminator bleak, the truth probably lies somewhere in-between. Never forget that humanity is more than sugar, spice & everything nice.

We are also chock-full of snips, snails & mutilated puppy dog tails.


Alfred Differ said...

The weapons platform up there will get built, but it will probably be a US construct. I doubt we will bother, though, until the next cold war arrives on our door step. I have no doubt it will be expensive. 8)

Just because a nation can build a thing doesn't mean they will. Something sensible has to motivate the spending of the money... something of a geopolitical nature.

Paul451 said...

Rob H,
Re: Using the moon to develop for Mars.
While I agree that both moon and Mars dust will present problems, they are similar only at the most superficial level ("keep dust out of the equipment"); in detail, equipment will need to be separately designed for each. Dust is a perfect example of what I was saying about the lack of overlap.

Re: Gravity.
We don't know if 1/6th G is enough to offset the damage of microgravity. Hence we need a variable gravity facility to find out how much we need. Which would be an excellent incremental development from the ISS, except that the ISS program was never intended as an incrementally improving series of space stations. It's stunning how little we've achieved in manned space flight in the last 40 years.

Re: Lunar space elevator.
Although the required strength is more realistic than an Earth space elevator, a 100,000km minimum length makes the engineering is just as intimidating. But it's a waste: a short rotating tether in lunar orbit would be more efficient, and is possible with current materials. Low or zero ground-speed, multiple drop/pick-up points around the equator, "free" boost into higher orbit or return trajectory. Add another rotating tether in LEO and a third in L2, and you have a system of propellantless transfer all the way to the moon and back. And with much softer engineering requirements than any single space elevator. And no actual "elevator" required, since you don't climb the tether, making it faster to go from pick up at one end, to release at the other (ie, just wait half a rotation). In Earth orbit, this is much better, since you don't spend weeks slowly climbing through the Van Allen Belts.

Just to be clear, I don't think the moon is worthless. When humans spread into space, I expect the moon will become a major production hub. But as a next step, it isn't a "next step". Like the shuttle and ISS, it is a closed goal, it doesn't lend itself to incremental development that aids the further spread outwards into space. It could do so (the ice at the poles, for example), but once "Return to the moon" or "Lunar Base" becomes a goal, anything useful becomes stripped away and the stated goal becomes the only purpose of the program. Constellation had PR shots of lunar bases and discussion of polar ice and astronomy, but what was funded was a rocket, a capsule, a lander, a rover, and a very limited number of landings. Apollo redux. Except without the incremental Redstone/Mercury/Gemini portions that allowed the development of deep skill, which is why Constellation failed.

Jumper said...

I like the Martian Farmville concept a lot. To begin it, we need a video game with a variable delay rate, perhaps synched to actual Earth - Mars radio transit times. Then test how well Waldo-bots can perform: how often operators goof and cause accidents, how long it really takes to build and assemble things such as hydroponic farms, storage bays, (don't want the wind scattering your dehydrated corn and peas you are saving for the future). Making freeze-cast silica bricks, crude industrial chemicals and fertilizers, etc.
Once a few million gamers have amassed the stats, we would know how the real 'bots would likely perform using Earth-based operators.

locumranch said...

Something sensible has to motivate the spending of the money ....

So much quaint optimism.

Historically speaking, most human technological advances -- whether they be mechanical, chemical, electrical or medical -- spring from man's inhumanity to man and an overwhelming desire to kill each other.

From canned food to physics, penicillin and the microchip, all these advances were initially developed to give one side or the other a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Has everyone forgotten the Coldwar based +Space Race" ??

Don't fret though. We can still turn this basic human drive to our advantage by stealing some pages G Lucas & G Roddenbary. We can capture the imagination of an entire generation by declaring war in space.

Young men will line up to kill each in orbit with zero G battlesuits, remote-controlled drones, guns & energy weapons just like Halo meets March Madness. The war will be televised and we can all cheer for the home team. Fight. Fight. Kill. We'll make billions on mechandising alone.

Go Team.


Jumper said...

Optimism ain't quaint, o psychopathic one, and porn 'n' petroleum has driven tech as much as weapons.
Rule 34.

locumranch said...

Thanks, Jumper. Rule 34 is lovely meme. True, too. Designed to excite and titillate, there's Porn for everything.

There's "Drill, Baby, Drill" for Petroleum-based Porn and Violence for Hollywood-based Porn but my personal fave is Spacecraft Porn.

Titan, Delta, Saturn & the Shuttle upright, erect, thrusting, always thrusting into Space, an extension of own virility, penetrating the atmosphere, consummating our manifest destiny with Kirk's green animal women, 7 of 9 and Padme, using rebel missiles to fertilize the Death Star, achieving the little death with a climactic KABOOM !!**

It's quite entertaining but not quite as popular as "End of the World" Porn:

Fifth Element, Armageddon, Constantine, Soylent Green, Silent Summer, any & every Calender-based Catastrophe, Montezuma's Revenge, Global Warming, Climate Change or Zombie Apocalypse.

I invoke Internet Rule 20. ;)

**Explaining, perhaps, why Science Fiction rarely attracts or appeals to women.

Acacia H. said...

I know a number of women who enjoy science fiction, thank you very much. I'm good friends with several of them. (Sadly, finding one who is single and interested in dating is... not as easy. But then again, I'm unlucky at love, unlucky at cards.)

Rob H.

TomC said...

The moon is useless? Then give it to all the kids of the world as a STEM playground.

A few billion dollars (peanuts compared to the yearly Dept of Education budget) to develop and deliver some bootstrap drones and other tools and raw materials. A few tens of million dollars a year to maintain communications from Earth.

Plus a lot of volunteer work to bootstrap KidSpace as a mostly self-sustaining driver of STEM - modelled on Scouts with a touch of StarFleet Academy.

Ask kids to earn the right to contribute to the KidSpace moon base by learning enough to be useful to the program - and then to provide new learning modules, documentation, ideas, designs, models, prototypes, simulations, training, control software, etc.

Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jumper said...

And science fiction fans are pretty nice guys. They don't often just go steal their women.

If I said you are better when you are funny, locumrich, as above, that might imply I think it's meaningful, as if I represent a majority or something. I don't know.

Ian Gould said...

The moon's got water ice, metals and reaction mass.

All in a lower gravity well than the Earth's.

whether it'll ever be economic to exploit those resources depends on a couple of things:

1. If the astronomical start-up costs can ever be offset by the lower energy costs of launching relative to launching from the Earth;

2.Whether the size and relative proximity of the moon offsets the even lower gravity wells offered by the asteroids.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Locumranch, with your statement about science fiction rarely appealing to or attracting women, you have just dissed better than half of the world's population. Not to mention CJ Cherryh, Jo Walton, Nancy Kress, and a large contingent of other highly regarded female authors. Care to rethink that?

Motheysa: larval form of Mothra

Tony Fisk said...

I shall take a leaf out our host's manual and let the girls handle this one!

( Ramoth? Sic'im!)

locumranch said...

In regard to my gender-based statement about the appeal of science fiction, no slight was intended to female science fiction authors and/or fans.

As documented in "Science-Fiction Fans in Socio-Economic Perspective" by A. Berger (below):

"Traditionally, science fiction has been a literature written by males for male readers. As shown by the Maine researchers, one magazine, Astounding/Analog, reported a female readership of only 6.7% in 1949 and 11.9% in 1958. Surveys taken for the British magazines Nebula and New Worlds during the fifties and early sixties report female readership of between 5% and 15%. This orientation began to change during the sixties. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF), normally considered the least technologically oriented of the three major American science-fiction magazines, reported a female readership of 29% at that time, a figure paralleled in 1974 by Analog, the most technologically oriented magazine, with a female readership of 25%."

Of course, most of these figures (first reported in 1977) refer to the "Golden Age" and, as noted above, female authors have made great inroads into Scifi since that time. So, although gender proportions may have changed in the last 30 years, anecdotal evidence says no and no hard data exists.

Still, most Scifi tends to emphasize the largely imaginary relationship between technical accomplishment and reproductive success, a viewpoint that seems to target the adolescent male (?) who -- although intrigued -- is still largely repulsed by human intimacy and/or sexuality.


Ian Gould said...

I kno David's focus here is on manned flight but I think on of the key developments of the next few ears will be developing the technology to recover satellites for repair and for boosting them into higher orbits or deorbiting them.

Mainly because that will open the way to assembling interplanetary craft in orbit and to recovering small earth-grazing asteroids for in situ resource extraction.

Tony Fisk said...

Related to that will be tech. to tidy up the bits and pieces already in orbit, so they remain usable. (as Gilbert was doing, to begin with, in Existence)

sociotard said...

Just FYI, the latest chapter in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality has updated, and the most recent other chapter has had its ending changed.

Anonymous said...

Re the moon being useless - I seem to recall reading a study somewhere about Lunar Solar Power being much more feasible than Solar Power Satellites - materials being available from the moon itself without the need to boost up from earth?

That is of course if we don't get some alternate possible energy source eg fusion and the cost benefits work out in favour of beamed solar power..

tom said...

What a hornet's nest! Space travel can cause people to bear opinions. It just cool. Being able to do it is suggestive that humans can survive anything. The person most startled is the one who has the most to lose. You bring 'outer space' into the social dialogue, you have just changed the world. Self-sufficient humans 100 million miles away aren't going to be sheep! To take a lesson from returning black veterans of WW1; 'How you going to keep the boys on the farm once they tasted Paris.'
This is a broad boast, but its out there... if you think space can be ignored, might as well give up on literacy and invention too.

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