Category Archives: Astrosociology

Mars Study – Oldie But Goodie

Robert Zubrin’s The Case For Mars (TCM) has been in publication for a couple of decades now, and is a seminal work in the space advocacy genre. Really, it shares space next to weighty volumes like those from Carl Sagan and Gerard K. O’Neill.

It has occurred to me more than once that it would be useful to design an academic course around such books, with TCM as the main reference in this case.  So, that’s what I’m going to embark on now. I’ve just picked up the newest edition and will give it as solid an evaluation as I  can and start generating course materials. 

Ares vs. Luna – Should the Siblings Fight?

I am a very long-time supporter and member of the Moon Society, from way back in the 1990’s, and feel pretty strongly about the need to establish a beachhead on the Moon. There are a number of reasons for this.

It’s stable.

From an orbital consideration, it is an extremely well-known commodity. Many nations have now landed something on the moon, orbited it, or used it as a means of sling-shotting to some other place in the Solar system. We know how to get there, and how to maneuver around it. There is something to be said for consistency. Geologically, it is nearly silent, and between industry and science, the nearly lab-like conditions and vast tableaus have a great deal of value.

It isn’t new.

I know, this doesn’t sound like a great selling point, but hear me out. With the Apollo missions, the Moon has been characterized enough in a few surface locations to build upon, if one takes a more cautious exploration strategy. For all of those detractors of the “flag-n-footprints” nature of the Apollo program, what better way to make lemonade than to actually derive a better and longer-lasting program of habitation based on what we’ve already learned?

It’s geopolitically valuable.

Humans will be humans, and sometimes they will fight. Maybe an economic war, or maybe a hot war, but nations are going to be at opposition of some level at all times in human history. Get used to it. As such, what value can be made of the Moon will initially belong to who lives there first. And I mean lives there, not explore or take a vacation there. Some nation, someday, will claim the place. Functionally, it provides a low-g jumping off point for other places. Militarily, it is the ultimate high ground in the Earth-Moon system. Woe is it to those who lose that race to a belligerent foe.

Of course, in the logic of zero-sum mathematics, there are a lot of people who think that in a finite field of funds, going to the Moon is stale and wasteful compared to Mars. If that is the logic in play, then Mars is also a bad place to go, because Asteroids have a very good chance of repaying the development costs and then eclipsing them in short order. Much shorter than Mars.

But really, the division between the two is a matter of apples-and-oranges, and does nothing but cause feuds between the proponents of the two destinations. As far as I am concerned, if the Triad is the road to the rest of the Solar system, colonizing the Moon is the maturing of the Terrestrial system. Certain circles are taking umbridge that NASA is doing quiet study on going back there, but personally, I think it’s great. I think it’s appropriate. However, Mars missions push us towards technology that we need to go anywhere else nearby, say the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, or even farther afield. Why throw such activity out in a fit of Lunachauvinism, either?

NASA is supposed to look to the future, and it is kind of unrealistic to think that planning for Moon missions would be ignored. Lunar activity doesn’t become any more or less impractical because political winds blow in another direction. Going to Mars is something else we need, too, so we can spread ourselves out and protect the species, and to foster freedom.

Reasons to ARM Wrestle – Item 10

Leaving something permanent.

One of the saddest things about the Apollo missions is that they didn’t leave anything permanent that made future missions any easier. When Apollo was canceled, all that was left were museum pieces, pictures and a few hundred kilograms of rocks. But the nice thing about ARM is that once the asteroid sample has returned to lunar DRO, it’s there. It doesn’t require continued expenditures from NASA for it to stay there. Until we’ve mined every last bit of it, it’s going to be there orbiting the moon, close enough that almost any spacefaring country or business in the world can reach it if they want to. It doesn’t need an ongoing “standing army” that can be defunded. It doesn’t need a mission control to watch over it 24/7. It doesn’t need a sustaining engineering contract that’s going to suck up significant portions of NASA’s limited human spaceflight budget on an ongoing basis. It’s just there. Having something that accessible and permanent out there is worth something, at least to me.

This may be one of the best rationales in the whole ARM mission plan. If we want to have a permanent presence in space, we have to do permanent things. I am an absolute fan of the Apollo program, for a number of reasons, be it political, entertainment, inspiration, or technological and scientific. It was a great period in our nation’s history, and has importance beyond itself as a political tool. But Goff is right: it didn’t last. With significant funding, it could have been built to last, but it was primarily a political program, and when the holders of the purse strings had wrung what they wanted out of it, they moved on. All big programs face such a peril.

But ARM? It has the real potential to develop an infrastructure that can endure, and has practical reasons for why it should endure. We would be building a space exploitation milieu that is focused on resource development, as a product and a way to expand human activity to the solar system in an understandable way. If you want to create something that really lasts, you have to make it of practical value to as many people as possible. You have to show that practicality in a clear, unspun way. We can do that with a strong ARM.

Reasons to ARM Wrestle – Item 9

Providing more experience with on-asteroid operations.

If the Rosetta/Philae mission should tell us anything, it’s that there’s still a lot to learn, from an engineering standpoint, about how to operate successfully on the surface of large, low-gravity objects like asteroids or comets. While we’ll continue to get some small-scale experience using other robotic missions, and while a manned mission to a “free-range” asteroid will also provide a good way to get more data, ARM will likely extend our knowledge about how to do operations like these safely with large objects, increasing the likelihood of success of future manned missions to free-range asteroids.

This topic ties back to something that I think some other commentators are missing, and that is there is nothing wrong with practicing at the Moon first for operations that take place in much more remote locations. It is eases the program into risk, while actually stretching boundaries that we haven’t expanded before. There are those that advocate living on the Moon before reaching for Mars, simply because there are a number of unknowns about how to even merely logistically address a Martian mission. I would generally be one of those advocates. The same applies for a post-ARM crewed rendezvous with the delivered asteroidal object – let the robots go far to the regions where higher risks lie, and bring a part of that environment back to us for study at the relatively nearby Moon. We still get the experience of getting to the Asteroids, we still get to stretch ourselves with a Lunar mission with high mission durations, and likely develop a permanent presence in cis-lunar space, all as bonuses to the basic goal of providing a proving ground for asteroid exploration and development. There are enough gremlins in the Earth-Moon system as it is to keep us quite busy, and as Goff points out, there are enough unknows with asteroid rendezvous punctuated by the experience of the Rosetta team. Heading directly to the asteroids isn’t necessary from the point of view of solar system expansion. Setting up an R&D location in the Lunar location is a very valuable idea.*

We have the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo model to fall back on to understand why this is a winning strategy, so why shouldn’t we use it? I see little overtly wrong with heading back to the Moon to stay, or even a dash to Mars, though the latter may be a flag-and-footprints effort as Apollo became, if there isn’t an infrastructure behind it. Pursuing ARM can be implemented to provide that infrastructure.

*I have no problem at all with a direct-to-the-Moon colony, or a sprint to Mars, or sending crews to the asteroids. I think those are ALSO very valuable ideas. Any of those missions are better than the handwringing of politicians in what passes for the so-called “leadership” demonstrated at the current time.

Triad – Three Technologies Unite for Mars

VASIMR Plasma Propulsion
Small Fusion Systems
Asteroid Retrieval

In the past few months the three items of my extreme interest have hit the news, and it has me pondering if NASA may be putting together (finally) a real set of architectures for a larger solar system mission. The most recent news about Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz’s Ad Astra VASIMR getting the go-ahead for a mission seemed like a final puzzle piece falling into place. See:

Could we get to Mars in 39 DAYS? Nasa selects companies to develop super fast deep-space engine

If a mission to places farther than Earth orbit or Mars are to become anything other than naked, skin-of-the-teeth exploration forays, we will have to have propulsion sources like VASIMR. You need something that can cross these larger distances quickly, be reusable and re-directable to multiple destinations, and be able to perform an abort is something goes wrong. VASIMR is capable of doing all of those things.

There was also the news late last year about Lockheed Martin’s small, but high-power-density fusion power plants now in development, discussed here:

Fusion Power May Be On Its Way (Finally)

In short, these are the power systems VASIMR is looking for. They make the mission work.

And now we have OSIRIS-REx going forward with spacecraft assembly for its 2016 launch, announced right on the heels of Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) option B being given the green light for development.

The combination of these three things, the Triad, are the road for development of the solar system. Resource exploitation and permanent human exploration and settlement ride that road.

Reasons to ARM Wrestle – Item 6

Demonstrating planetary defense techniques.

If something similar to ARM Option B is selected, NASA is interested in using it to demonstrate the “gravity tractor” method for deflecting the parent asteroid. Learning how to deflect potentially hazardous asteroids is probably one of the more worthwhile things NASA could be spending money on right now, and providing a way of getting real hands-on experience applying those techniques would be very useful.

This is a big one to me, as it is aligns with one of the major rationale for the existence of the Outbound project. Even as a kid, I generally understood that an asteroid or comet impacting the Earth could ruin your whole day. Or your civilization. Or species. Given that seems that having the whole of humanity living on just Earth was never a good long-term plan. I’ve read my share of science-fiction, and books like Rendezvous with Rama and Lucifer’s Hammer drove the point home in good literary fashion, but real-life events in 1994 made it very clear to me that we are living on borrowed time. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter that July, with some spectacular results.

That comet, fragmented as it was, left multiple impact marks in the atmosphere of Jupiter, including one that was twice the diameter of the Earth. That is impressive, and frankly intimidating, to contemplate. We are fortunate in the extreme that we have Jupiter and Saturn acting as cosmic shop-vacs, clearing much of the debris of the solar system before it reaches the inner orbits such as ours. However, from impact evidence on Earth, not every object is pulled in by our gas giants. If there are rocks out there lurking around that can blot out the Earth so effectively, I can’t imagine why we’d hesitate in getting off of our home rock and leaving more than one target for the cosmos to aim at.

As noted a few days ago here and elsewhere, ARM Option B is now the mission in play, and if it does anything at all to further our ability to get off-planet or divert inbound species-killer object, that’s outstanding.

Systems of Systems – Human Experience and Space

One of the tenets of the Outbound project is that Humanity already lives and works in space. We are surrounded by the environment that is keyed to our biology and allows us to live with at least a fighting chance for survival, but it is still only one environment, on one body in outer space. There are many more environments out there, and many more bodies in space. Through technology, we have already dipped our toes in, as Sagan said, and we know that adaptation is possible. If we survive ourselves, or terrestrial natural events, or even the vagaries of space threats that exist, we can get ourselves spread about the cosmos. Time, resources, and human industry are the only real design factors, and we have those.

Of course, the above is a philosophical argument. Not logically untrue at all, but vague. As an engineer, however, you can look at our species’ life in the universe as a systems engineering problem. Essentially, we are an imperfectly closed-loop system that is performance-limited by its nominally-closed nature. Said less-esoterically – Humans only live on Earth, and while it takes care of the bulk of our needs, staying home limits our potential. The definitions of our potential can be represented in many ways, of course. Many systems would have to come together to break out of our closed-loop construct, and those systems must be defined before our potentials can even be really hinted at.

With that in mind, I think it is high time to treat human Space Exploration and Exploitation (SE2) as a System of Systems puzzle. I am now looking at the high-level view of the system, and will progressively break it down into more and more subsystems, until there is a real framework to build upon to create a viable and understandable space-faring society. The work will not be easy, I have no illusions about that, and I will need to form a team of co-researchers and supporters to pull together what I expect will be a huge body of work. I think that’s all worth it, though. Let me elevate that: It is necessary.

Twenty-Nine Years and Looking Outbound

On a far-too-cold day twenty-nine years ago, the space shuttle Challenger was lost on ascent. Here is how we should remember her:

Challenger At Launch - 1985

Of course, reality and mature thought demand that we also think of her thusly:

The Final Flight of Challenger - 1986

Her Crew:

A Truly Gallant Crew

For the sake of decency, I will not present the graphic reality of their final trip outbound. It is sufficient to say that they dared greatly, and paid a price, as did their family, friends, and a nation. Even the world felt the sting of that dark day in the clear blue sky.

Still, we continued on, and we will continue to do so. I thank the crew of Challenger for risking themselves and honor their sacrifice by doing my best to make sure that it wasn’t in vain.

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