More Interesting Things!

So since there really hasn’t been much more advancement regarding the two Congressional approaches to the FY2011+ budget for NASA, I’m going to keep posting interesting things I’ve found.

So the NewSpace 2010 conference happened last weekend, and Doug Messier over at Parabolic Arc has been running a series of summary articles–essentially notes from the various panels. Here are just a few articles that I think are interesting:

Making Money Mining the Moon

Interesting and alliterative! Basically, this article’s notes are rehashing everything I like to say about going to the moon and more: minerals are there, water is there, it’s easier and cheaper to develop, etc. Certainly worth a read…as much as this notation style is a “read” and not a “glance-over”.

Space Solar Power Discussion

Another of my favorite topics. Short story shorter: this article is talking about things like new technologies lowering launch costs, the effects of SBSP on the world (China is #1 exporter of resources–what does that mean for the US, I wonder, if we had SBSP?), the cost of power from a powersat, the effect of decentralized electrical power on property values, etc. Interestingly, there are apparently trillions of dollars of uninvested money just sitting around. Who knew?

Cheap, Reliable Access to Space

Certainly necessary. Commercial (read: SpaceX) is clearly able to develop and launch more cheaply than NASA, NASA is a public jobs program, low-volume problems solved by tourism (maybe) and SBSP (definitely), etc. Also, money solves all problems. True enough, I suppose, but where’s the money come from? Congress? Ha ha. Clearly not.

Bob Clarebrough at The Space Review has an interesting follow-up to an article he posted back at the beginning of July. The topic of the day is, of course, commercial vs. government–with non-NASA examples to back it up. A brief skim shows me an article that, in some respects, is perhaps slightly optimistic with respect to the efficacy of commercial over government, but it counters that nicely with a description of how NASA could be repurposed (read: made human-centric) to be more effective at what it does: getting human beings into space.

Favorite quote so far:

“Without a vision-driven, sustained space effort, the focus has been blurred. The space program must become human-centric. For decades, NASA has probed, roved, orbited, observed, surveyed, photographed, and mapped, but in the last 40 years, apart from the Moon, not one boot print has been made anywhere and not one rock has been picked up by a human hand off the Earth and closely inspected by human eyes. While robots can help to scout the way, exploration cannot truly be said to have been done until humans do it. It has been said that no photographs taken or words written can prepare you for your first sight of the Grand Canyon. I know that to be true. So, don’t give me grainy snapshots of Olympus Mons—take me there!”

Very true, I think.

Another article from The Space Review talks about the Congressional approaches to commercial space: specifically, how deficient the House funding is, and why. Having browsed through the Representative’s quotations–especially committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN), who said:

“I believe the bill before us today provides the nation with a productive future for its human spaceflight program, one that can be sustained even in the midst of budgetary uncertainty[.]”

Alan Grayson (D-FL) said, in what smacks of Wall Street bailout reactions:

“Why hand $500 million of federal resources to companies that don’t need it, haven’t asked for it, don’t want it, and in all likelihood will provide nothing for it?”

I could go into what I think is wrong with both of those statements (brief summary: productive future? Not at those rates, buddy. And: But they probably need it, they certainly would ask for it, they likely want it, and have already started providing things for it) but I won’t…not in detail, at least.

Next is this article from Aviation Week, talking about what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an independent think-tank, thinks about the Obama space plan. Short version: not good. Longer short version: non-government market is sparse at best, the budget doesn’t provide a way to achieve “laudable goals”, national security is at risk through commercial satellite…something (apparently commercial bandwidth makes up 80% of the Pentagon’s space communication usage, and that somehow moving the emphasis to commercial flights will make that coverage unreliable. I’m not sure what that means, since ULA has the rockets and the government can launch their own satellites through ULA, but whatever), etc.

Finally, NASA Watch has an interesting look at what many people seem to have forgotten: the R&D cuts in the new budget proposals–both of them. Worth a read, especially for a look at just what the new budget proposals won’t be funding.

Here’s waiting for more policy news, as agonizing and frustrating as it is.

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Because I Haven’t Used the “Interesting” Tag Often Enough

Because, as the title of this post states, I don’t use the “Interesting” tag nearly enough, here are some interesting things that don’t really warrant a full post.

First is this wonderful little comic debunking several “moon hoax” claims, although I imagine most of those who read this blog regularly are not in any particular need of it. Use it to explain to those who might not understand.

Less entertainingly is this from the Orlando Sentinel. As much as the Senate compromise bill has grown on me–the recently-released full text representing what Doug Messier informs us is an upwardly-revised version–this is something about which to be concerned. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like the original Obama plan’s destinations: without a firm goal and destination, it’s just too easy to be canceled down the line. Same with this; it looks like a good compromise–although it’s still too self-serving for my taste, what with all the pressure to re-use Constellation and Shuttle components–but it might get the axe just like Constellation has from Obama.

At this point I’m wondering whether to give the inch and take a half a mile, or to stand firm and possibly lose it altogether. In other words, should I support the compromise bill or not? I’m doubting much upwards revision will take place from here; from what I see, it might end up that the House and Senate bills will rise and drop (respectively) to meet somewhere in the middle. Sounds good politically, I suppose, but practically? I bet it would stink.

Drill Up and Power Down

Beam power down, that is! American hero and Presidential ear-haver Dr. Buzz Aldrin has this to say about Space-Based Solar Power (SBSP):

“The timing of the oil catastrophe is a great opportunity for re-evaluating solar energy from space.”

(Note: The above is sourced from just one of many sites repeating this news.)

Rather…broad, isn’t it? Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that only by harvesting offworld resource will we as a species survive in the long term without catastrophic population failure or ignominious population controls. The fastest and most topical means of doing that on a wide scale is to begin harvesting energy from the Sun–and this time, to power our cities and electronics, not just our palate (through, of course, plants).

This news makes the rounds in response to a Presidential call for more innovation, with the goal of turning America into an energy exporter instead of a billion-dollar energy importer:

“The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”

Well, yeah. It was yesterday, too, but at least the time specified isn’t “tomorrow”.

Anyway, in my opinion, SBSP is the only means of providing clean long-term baseload power to the United States. Nuclear fission energy is a great alternative for areas which can’t get access to a GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) Solar Power Satellite (SPS or Powersat), or to provide additional electrical capacity, or to provide a gap-closing measure until SBSP is ready nationwide. Nuclear fusion power would be awesome (and provide incentive for long-term lunar mining operations) if we, you know, had second-generation fusion (using helium-3 instead of tritium). Or first-generation fusion. Ahem.

This report from the National Space Society says that a kilometer-wide “insolation band” at GEO–namely, a band through which solar energy passes, or so I interpret–experiences enough solar energy flux in one year (about 212 TW-years) to almost equal all of the remaining recoverable oil on the planet (about 250 TW-years). Though it would take a great deal of material to cover all of that space, I believe the point is made: there is much energy to be had in space, and we have to get at it.

It’s long been popularized that oil money is used to fund terrorism. I have no evidence one way or the other, so I will not comment on the truth or fiction of that statement. However, it is pretty obvious that relying on another country for something so incredibly fundamental to our civilization and our way of life is probably something of a national security concern. Therefore, independent access to electrical power through SBSP not only helps our environment, it helps keep our country safe.

It has been said that we in the United States have enough coal to last us for the next three centuries or so. Assuming this is true, coal is still a relatively highly pollutant means of generating electricity. Even if it wasn’t, it’s still a nonrenewable resource, and I doubt demand for electrical power is going to go down, especially if efforts succeed in “raising” developing nations into stability and prosperity.

So SBSP is good for the world and the United States, but is it possible and cost-effective? Some have supposed a break-even point at about the three-year mark, and it’s certainly possible. For example, all of the elements–collection and transmission of solar energy–have been demonstrated, even through atmosphere.

The beam is milder than actual sunlight–though still more energy-dense–so it can’t be used to harm anything. The satellites are in a very obvious and difficult-to-reach orbit, so security is likely less of an issue (the ground-based stations are simpler and easier to repair if anything does go wrong). The satellites are also in GEO, so they are obscured by the Earth for something like twenty minutes per year, so the day-night cycle that dooms terrestrial solar power is deftly avoided.

Also of note: the resources necessary in constructing and maintaining such a large number of huge structures will likely drive down launch costs and broaden civilian and commercial access to space. Two birds with one kilometer-wide solar panel, eh? Or smaller, depending on the configuration.

I won’t ramble on too much here, but suffice it to say that SBSP seems to be the only viable long-term solution to solving the energy problem, as well as related security and environmental problems connected to current energy sources. It does bother me though that, after being proposed on the then-President-Elect’s web page, little has been done about it–save to say that even a conference is impractical, despite a SBSP conference being the highest-rated suggestion on NASA’s Open Government Initiative idea submission site.

So, we need what it provides, and its side-effects are ultimately beneficial as well. So why aren’t we on this? I don’t know, but maybe the President knows something I don’t. From the NYT:

“[President Obama] said progress [on energy independence] had been blocked time and time again by ‘oil industry lobbyists,’ and he suggested that achieving energy independence was an issue of national security, saying the time has come for the United States to ‘seize control of our own destiny.'”

My favorite line? This one:

“The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet.”

Well then, maybe we can start with that conference? I’ll see you there.

Congratulations, SpaceX! Now Maybe We Can Really Get Things Started

So anyone paying even moderate attention to the space culture recently knows about Friday’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a dummy Dragon capsule. I’m nothing if not proud of them, but I would warn people not to get too excited about it. It’s a fantastic accomplishment, but I think it’s more important for its effects on the rest of the industry than as a launch system itself.

But before I talk about that, let’s talk about the reaction in the industry.

From Space.com:

“‘I think this bodes very well for the Obama plan,’ SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said after the launch. ‘It really helps vindicate the approach he’s taking.'”

Of course, he also said:

“‘The Falcon 9 launch[‘], he continued, ‘should not be a verdict on commercial space. Commercial space is the only way forward’ because of the unsustainably high costs of government programs. He later said that ‘if some company like SpaceX doesn’t succeed, then the future of space is not a bright one.'”

I can agree that commercial is the way forward, but I don’t know why Obama is focusing on a start-up like SpaceX as the key to his new policy when more experienced companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin (through ULA and USA) are sitting there with operational and oft-used rockets. As for the cost of said rockets, all NASA has to do, it seems, is stop agreeing to cost-plus contracts and let SpaceX and other companies put pressure on the establishment, if not outright surpass them (the “effects” of which I wrote).

Parabolic Arc has a nice summary of the reactions of important Congresspersons regarding the launch. So far, I think my favorite reactions tend to come from Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida. Though he is understandably attempting to save certain aspects of Constellation (he’s from Florida after all), he appears to be the most flexible in his positions, something sorely needed in this issue.

Personally, I’m rather fond of this plan from ULA (if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing, NSS Phoenix has a nice summary). I apologize if you’ve seen it before, but I’ve only recently found out about it through The Space Review’s intriguing post on a LEGO space program (just read it. It will make sense then).

Basically, it’s supposed to be a sustainable plan for a long-term lunar exploration program, with the option to easily expand it to a Mars exploration program. It proposes using existing EELV launchers with a new, evolved upper stage as a common propulsion system (the stage is apparently already set to be used in normal EELV launches anyway). A pair of propellant depots–one in LEO and one at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrangian point–will be used to provide everything from a resource base to a market for start-up space launch companies (the idea being that fuel is noncritical, relatively inexpensive, and extremely important, so not only will there always be a need for fuel to be launched into space, it’s not a huge deal if a new, experimental rocket explodes carrying some).

The plan also uses the Orion capsule system, so all the hard work being put into it isn’t wasted, and Orion isn’t reduced to what some see as an unnecessary rescue vehicle (what with the Soyuz there and all). The lunar lander is an interesting new concept, but due to the fuel depots and the manner in which the vehicle lands, not only does the descent stage have a new use as propellant delivery and eventual storage (which will be used in the future to close the environment loop), but the ascent stages can be used repeatedly as ferries to and from the lunar surface. Just dock a new descent stage–full of “too much” propellant and other useful consumables–and away you go. This would significantly reduce the amount of weight that would need to be launched to the Moon as the program continued.

The ULA plan would also allow continuous–and briefly overlapping–four-month crew missions, similar to the ISS, with all the advantages that brings (specifically, maintenance and continuous production and such).

As for Mars, the L2 station could provide a valuable and extremely useful departure point for Mars transit, with ship modules possibly being constructed out of lunar materials and assembled in lunar orbit.

All in all, it’s an extremely interesting proposal, and one that looks like it could be done within the current budget. It would be exactly, it seems, what Obama is looking for, while still maintaining a NASA presence (ULA works with NASA a lot) and not relying so much on what many worry are as-yet unproven companies.

So, congratulations to SpaceX. Now, let’s adopt a real wide-reaching, ambitious program involving cooperation between the national and commercial space programs, shall we? Something with numbers and plans and destinations, something that people can get excited about.

Now THIS is more like it!

I have today, among other things, a very appropriate and well-stated explanation, I think, for my own pro-lunar-return opinions. I feel like I didn’t really know why I felt the way I felt until I read this. I’m not sure yet if it’s the be-all-end-all of my opinions vis-a-vis a lunar return, but I certainly found myself nodding along. Here’s the link.

One more: in case you were tired of all the big high muckety-mucks discussing the space plan in terms of jobs and workers, here is an actual worker talking about it!

Space-Based Solar Power: Energy for the 21st Century

Once again, TED takes up fifteen minutes of my life. I mean that in a good way, of course.

The only problem I have with any part of this video is the fact that NASA and the DOE and the DOD aren’t doing enough with this. Hell, it would only revolutionize the country’s attitude towards space, and create hundreds if not thousands of jobs, and bring in tons of money, all for less than it takes to spend three days in the Middle East.

In my opinion, the idea that the United States couldn’t do everything we want it to do in space is ridiculous. The kind of money we blow on less important things is mind-boggling. You want to stimulate the economy? Spend money in space. There’s no end to the jobs you would create, or the new technologies and resources you would acquire. Pretty much the entirety of the national economy can be reproduced in space, in some aspect or another. Janitorial services? Fuhgeddaboudit. Why clean up trash in some crappy high school when you can do it on a base on the north pole of the Moon? Or in a space colony? Or simply in space?

SBSP provides an economical way to launch a massive space-based infrastructure that will have incredible benefits for this country and the world at large. The irresponsible thing to do (as some call space spending) would be NOT to invest.