|(1) Manned spaceflight: growth on hold in 2011|
|(2) Why we must consolidate LEO before venturing further|
All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) Manned spaceflight: growth on hold in 2011
Having now brought my manned spaceflight statistics up to date, I am able to report that 2011 saw continued activity at the 2,000 man-days level, but no improvement on the record levels achieved in 2009 and 2010.
The figures are:
|2009||2180 man-days logged in space;|
The rate of manned launches in 2011 was exactly the same as in 2010: 7 launches (3 Shuttle, 4 Soyuz, zero Shenzhou). The peak rate of manned launches and seats to orbit came as long ago as 1985, 26 years ago, with 11 launches (9 Shuttle, 2 Soyuz, carrying a total of 63 space travellers).
As I discussed last April, the ISS is now as complete and as fully occupied as it will ever be under its present management, and with the retirement of the Shuttle, and its failure to produce a successor, there is no prospect of any further increase in manned spaceflight activity at all unless and until new spaceflight ventures come into operation.
Although a manned Shenzhou launch is expected this year, the Chinese programme is actually decelerating. The gaps between the first and second Chinese flights, the second and third, and the third and fourth expected this year, are 2 years, 3 years, 4 years.
On the bright side, there is a lot of background activity going on, both in the commercial sector in the US, and in China with the long-awaited deployment of its Tiangong space station test article.
SpaceX remains optimistic, with this recent interview of Elon Musk by Rand Simberg in Popular Mechanics describing their plans for full recovery of their launch vehicles as well as spacecraft.
Meanwhile, Duncan Law-Green has found photographic evidence of the hoped-for wave of the future.
Space Adventures, too, is bullish. Listen to its chairman Eric Anderson discussing the significance of their planned circumlunar flight, to be achieved within the next five years. He talks of “a fantastic validation of the marketplace for private spaceflight”, and adds: “government exploration programmes [...] should be pushing the envelope of what’s possible”.
At least some within NASA are supportive. This is what Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said to the NewSpace 2011 Conference (hear her on YouTube):
I think you know that the whole basis and underpinning for what we are trying to do in this administration is return NASA to that more classical role of our 1958 Space Act of investing in technologies that will then help create the markets so that the private sector can come in, benefit from this technology investment, scientific understandings, and then we move on to do the next hard thing. We aren’t here to compete with the private sector, in fact that’s not legal. We are here ... it is not a bad thing, it is what we should be doing in the government, to open new markets, and this is a role we take very seriously.
What has grown out of Apollo to be the current space agency way of doing things is, on its own, incapable of meaningfully expanding our civilisation out into the Solar System. A major commitment by one government or another could possibly achieve this, but no government – capitalist or communist, democratic or autocratic – has yet devoted to space exploration and colonisation the levels of political capital, funding or long-term commitment which they routinely give to their key portfolios in social security and military power.
In order for people to begin to live in large numbers in space and on other worlds, supported by local industries and local natural resources, an economic motivation for going into space must emerge to dominate spaceflight activities, with support from government and from society at large, and this emergence is still in gestation. If Elon Musk, Eric Anderson and Lori Garver are right, then we should soon see commercial passenger spaceflight pick up again from where it left off in 2009 and begin to grow.
But the waiting is nerve-wracking!
(2) Why we must consolidate LEO before venturing further
The BIS has a poll on its website homepage which asks: “What should be the primary focus of ESA/NASA?” A total of 120 people have voted so far. While none of the options listed has yet achieved an absolute majority, I think I’m not giving too much away if I reveal that bases on the Moon and Mars garner the lion’s share of the votes. (You need to be a member to vote and to see the detailed results.)
The very lowest score goes to Earth orbit activities. Since this is what I voted for, I feel that my message is not getting across. :-(
I was recently discussing space infrastructure with a friend, which inspired me to send him the following summary of how I see it developing over the next few decades.
In terms of markets: the economic drivers have to be tourism and energy – two of the biggest markets on Earth, and so also in space. Government science and commercial research and manufacturing are also important, but I think that in order to be effective they really depend upon reductions in costs to orbit which can only be achieved by the mass markets of tourism first (which of course began in 2001, and from 2001 to 2009 maintained a rate of one passenger ticket to the ISS per year) and solar power satellite construction later (which requires the prior initial reduction of launch costs through passenger transport, and probably also some near-Earth asteroid exploration, before it becomes economically attractive).
Historical analogy: leisure passenger transport was certainly important to the growth of the early railway companies, which encouraged Londoners to get out and visit the seaside on their trains; to steamship companies, which, after the US set a limit to immigration from Europe, encouraged second-generation Americans to visit their ancestral homes in Europe on their liners; and to airlines, which based the development of modern fleets of jet aircraft on the transport of huge numbers of tourists on package holidays.
Note that the BIS space tourism symposium in November 2005, organised by David Ashford, one of the architects of the concept in its modern form (together with Patrick Collins), came to the conclusion that space tourism would be the key to economic access to space.
In terms of transport technologies to the Moon and Mars: the key drivers of a passenger-carrying infrastructure are the needs for radiation protection from solar flares, and for reliability and maintainability of equipment en route. A fast dash in a lightly protected spacecraft may be good enough for a tiny handful of heroic explorer astronauts, but no use at all for a regular, dependable, permanent and economically operated transport link. This is why I am driven to the cycler solution. A cycler can in principle be built up until you have an entire space city. Flying to the Moon or Mars you need a safe haven with large buffers of life-support consumables, power and spare parts (think Apollo 13), and you need a regular schedule (like the great transatlantic liners which departed once a week like clockwork for the Americas).
When a cycler is actually possible, starting out with everything in low Earth orbit and shunting it all into low lunar or Mars orbit every time is to my mind a horrendous waste of propellants. Leave all the heavy stuff in permanent orbits, and shuttle between those orbits in light, fast shuttles which transit between one safe haven and another in a matter of hours. But there are issues of orbital inclination (what works well in two dimensions does not always look so good in three) and of maintaining a precise trajectory against numerous perturbations (e.g. lunar mascons, changing position of the Sun, lunar and martian orbital eccentricity) which need to be addressed.
The design philosophy has to be, in my view, to start out by designing a system which is capable of permanent economic use, and then scale it back to our present-day possibilities. Thus the system one proposes then has a built-in growth trajectory. It has to get away from the Apollo-style space agency mentality of flying one-off missions which have no way to develop towards a self-sustaining space economy.
Then the following pattern of growth becomes clear:
(1) Consolidate our at present tentative foothold in LEO thru commercial passenger transport, primarily space tourism;
(2) After a decade or two of experience operating LEO space hotels, extend the space tourism system to Earth-Moon cycler space hotels;
(3) Design government lunar exploration on the premise that the astronauts will begin their trip to the Moon from the cycler (government only has to bridge the gap between the cycler and the lunar surface – its heroic astronauts get to within 100 km of the lunar surface by purchasing a ticket online);
(4) Design near-Earth asteroid exploration on the requirement that increasing amounts of near-Earth asteroid water will be brought back to LEO for use as radiation shielding and propellant feedstock (using the bootstrapping concept of John S. Lewis, which achieves this thru intelligent use of solar power, asteroidal water and choice of the easiest targets, shifting the burden of supply of propellants from Earth to space and exploiting aerobraking at Earth);
(5) After a decade or two of experience operating LEO and Earth-Moon cycler space hotels, extend the system to Earth-Mars space hotels, at the same time stepping up the use of near-Earth asteroids, particularly since a number of asteroids are already in orbits which approximately mimic Earth-Mars cyclers;
– in other words, the point about Earth-Mars transport is that you need a lot of mass in interplanetary space for consumables, radiation shielding and propellants, and almost all of that mass is already there in orbits approximating the ones we need in the form of water and other subsurface volatiles of Earth-Mars asteroids, so you don’t need a Saturn V class rocket to launch everything plus the kitchen sink from Florida;
(6) After some decades of experience operating LEO and Earth-Moon and Earth-Mars cycler space hotels, the technologies and markets should mature to the point that it becomes possible and attractive to live in space in such a hotel complex which is no longer dependent upon the passenger trade between existing planetary bodies; once that link has been broken, civilisation is free to spread out to the Main Asteroid Belt and the Jupiter Trojans, and a broad Solar System economy evolves.
Note that Earth-Mars passenger flights can begin only when Earth-Moon flights are commonplace; Earth-Moon passenger flights can begin only when Earth to low Earth orbit flights are commonplace. A pyramid of increasingly ambitious transport links is being built, and new ventures depend upon the permanent infrastructure and markets created by the previous ones – again in stark opposition to the conventional space agency mentality, which would destroy the ISS in order to be able to afford a Moon base, and would doubtless want to abandon its Moon base in order to be able to afford a Mars base, thus ensuring that the progressive growth of our civilisation into space is impossible so long as they are running the show.
I’d appreciate reasoned objections to and criticisms of the above from some of the people who think we should be pushing ahead to Moon and Mars bases right now. The growth pattern outlined above is a broad one, and it is possible that I may have missed some detailed technical hurdle which puts the kybosh on the scheme. Thanks!
For the present, it should be clear that if I were in charge of ESA, NASA, Roskosmos or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, I would focus all my immediate efforts on consolidating our present tentative and highly vulnerable toehold in low Earth orbit. I would certainly be planning ahead to lunar and martian bases as well – there’s no doubt whatsoever about that! – but they would be premised on prior growth in low Earth orbit, for which the one single overwhelming need at present is an economic, fully reusable transport system which can ferry passengers and cargo between Earth’s surface and space on a daily schedule at zero cost to the public treasury – and we’re not there yet by a long way!
Or let me put it this way: the BIS poll does not make the distinction between a sustainable Mars base (economically self-supporting using extraterrestrial resources) and an unsustainable one (whose purpose is government prestige under the fig-leaves of science and spinoff, which is what Apollo became). My vote is for a sustainable Mars base...
But the reality is that it costs an order of magnitude more to go to Mars than the Moon, and an order of magnitude more to go to the Moon than into low Earth orbit. Therefore, looking at the situation with a practical economic eye:
– a necessary precondition for a sustainable Mars base is a sustainable Moon base at least ten times larger;
– a necessary precondition for a sustainable Moon base is a sustainable low Earth orbit hotel system at least ten times larger;
– a necessary precondition for a sustainable low Earth orbit hotel system is a vehicle that can serve that system economically.
We don’t yet have that vehicle (tho Reaction Engines are working very hard on the case), which is why until the problem of economic access to low Earth orbit has been solved, dreams of Moon and Mars colonies are wishful thinking. (Or until the government of one country or another decides to make lunar or martian colonisation a national priority funded on a par with priorities such as social security and defence – but how likely is that? Newt Gingrich for president?!)