Site Selection for Lunar Industrialization, Economic Development, and Settlement


The subject of a lunar landing site/outpost/base has been explored extensively. Due to the cost and complexity involved, until now this has been almost the exclusive domain of government. In the United States we have gone through at least three generations of work in this area since the Apollo era. The vast majority of these plans and projects have been science driven, and scientific priorities have governed site selection and architecture. The general purpose here is to develop something fundamentally different. The general question to be investigated is; what would a non- governmental lunar development look like, premised upon economic development, industrialization and settlement? The specific purpose here is to zero in on a location so that further development and cost estimation can begin soon.

The question of lunar development and its importance was discussed in an exceptional activity at a major Silicon Valley venture capital office in August of 2014. Over 40 participants, most of whom have spent their careers in engineering, the sciences, and finance, were gathered to discuss the subject of what would a privately financed installation, to the tune of $5 billion dollars, to be operational by the end of the year 2022 look like? The 2022 project milestone would be a permanently inhabited installation that would initially house at least ten people on extended tours. Discussions were held about cost, implementation, economic activity, and so forth and it was encouraging to see how quickly, with the parameters enumerated, the various participants came to a consensus on the path forward. This missive will discuss site selection within the larger context of the overall project goal.


For lunar/mars exploration a loose taxonomy has been defined for classes of installations. These definitions have shifted with the direction of the political winds for NASA’s exploration program and so a definition of terms is important.


A sortie mission is a short duration stay with little or no infrastructure at a single or multiple locations. The Apollo missions fall into this class.


An outpost is a semi-permanent facility. It has habitats for humans, equipment for facility development, scientific exploration capabilities, and the like. However, it is not normally continuously manned, and the stays by the crew are short term (days/weeks vs months/years). This is the general style of facility described by NASA for a presence on the Moon and Mars over the last decade, though the same term was used for a much more robust presence during the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in the 1980’s and early 90’s. Also the crew is small with all members brought in or leaving on one flight.


This term was used originally all the way back into the pre Apollo era (1959) U.S. Army Horizons report. The Von Braun authored report (vol 1), (vol 2)had a large initial crew (12 men), carried to the Moon via a large modular and reusable vehicle assembled in Earth orbit. A base is continually occupied, has many occupants, and is used for science and other activities (a military base in the Horizon report). This is also the class of facility that was illustrated in the science fiction television show “Space 1999”.


The term development, from a mental imagery standpoint goes well beyond anything that government studies have focused on. However, these have been defined extensively in science fiction. Usually the word base or outpost is used. However, these are limiting in their imagery to what is possible for a commercial site. However, it is also premature hubris to call a lunar development a city. The German rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke went further than anyone with his “Selenopolis” as a city on the Moon. Of the three words in the title, at this time, the favored word is development. Development has many connotations but the foremost mental image is one of growth. We do developments all the time on the Earth for many purposes, thus this term gives freedom and while a development can and should encompass the requirements of science; it is not defined by them.

There are many different types of developments on the Earth. There are housing, industrial, mining, retail, commerce, sports, basically any type of, well development. Since it is our goal not to overly constrain the vision of those who embark on this quest, this missive will use the term development, and here is the definition in the current context.

Mixed Use

There are many examples of mixed use developments on Earth. In our context the mixed use incorporates industry, commerce, settlement, science, communications, transportation, and settlement.


It is becoming increasingly clear that our space based civilization will have a population of robots far larger than the human population. The development will begin this way out of the necessity to constrain costs, but will continue with its human population after the initial site preparation and construction has been completed. This is really not much different than a terrestrial development as heavy equipment for construction is required here on the Earth well before a development has its initial occupancy. The initial occupancy will be as few as two people to start and grow to its initial stage (the 2022 deadline) of ten people. Beyond that the growth in humans will be organic, growing as demand for humans increases. My opinion is that the demand for local humans will be great and we could see as many as hundreds by the year 2030 and thousands of robots. Beyond that there will be new developments located in many places on the Moon.

Sustainable (Not Self Sufficient)

Sustainable means that the development does not require constant resupply of everything needed in order to thrive. This means the massive implementation of Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and in situ manufacturing/farming to reduce the logistics burden and offset costs. No Earthly city is entirely self sufficient but they are sustainable. A desirable definition would be to generate enough economic output to justify its existence. Using this definition the U.S. Antarctic base is not sustainable, thus falls within the taxonomy listed here for base. It is the goal of the development on the Moon to be sustainable in that the economic product output exceeds the operational cost. The lunar development does not have to do this initially, but it is the absolute goal to do so. A path to exponential growth is strongly desired. As in any investment the goal is to develop a thriving economic ecosystem. Thus in this work we are aiming for a development.

Economic Output

A development must have an economy.  Not just an internal economy that offsets costs, but one where there is economic output that justifies the investment.  This also integrates the definition of sustainable because at the end of the day, without economic output our development just becomes Detroit (an American city who’s economy and population collapsed as its economic output nose dived) on the Moon.  What economic output is in detail will be left up to follow ons to this missive, but can and should be extensive.  In 2004 when president George W. Bush gave his speech on the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), he made an astounding statement that was little noticed, then ignored by NASA but bears repeating here.

Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost. Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air. We can use our time on the moon to develop and test new approaches and technologies and systems that will allow us to function in other, more challenging environments. The moon is a logical step toward further progress and achievement.

It is my strong opinion that the sustainable development of a colony on Mars (advocated by Elon Musk and others, including myself), if not impossible, is far more costly without the support of a industrial and manufacturing development on the Moon.  Thus the Moon becomes an integral part of the economic development of the solar system.

These are all farther term grand economic schemes, however, the lunar development must have near term economic development as well.  There are many ways to do this, that we will address in follow on missives.  The thing to be established is that the sense of purpose is not to just be a place like our Antarctic bases but to define it a place of commerce, industry, and growth.

Lunar Development Site Selection Requirements

Requirements Development

Each type of site as we defined in the previous section has its set of requirements but we are only focusing on our development. Our lunar development has a lot of implied requirements but these are all constrained and defined by the input parameters of the discussion at the team meeting at the VC firm. These are called in NASA parlance, level zero requirements, or the project goals. All lower level (usually level 1 requirements are the highest functional level and then the lower level requirements are 2,3,4 and so on) requirements must adhere to during the development of a detailed plan.   Thus the level zero requirements are as follows:

  • Approximately $5 billion in development costs.
  • Operational by the end of 2022.
  • Economically sustainable as a core value with exponential growth possible.

These are the only real requirements for the project, but they are profoundly different than any government directed lunar plan, most specifically bullet three. These requirements flow down to all the rest of the requirements and influence how the architecture unfolds. In this missive I only go as far as site selection underpinned by the philosophical approach. Site selection is crucial, thus outline of what is required there in order to provide context for site selection.

Factors Influencing Site Selection

By definition any site selection must be constrained by the level zero requirements. Thus right away nuclear reactors are out due to development costs. Economic sustainability implies considerable power, because without energy there is no economic activity. Energy is life, work, air, resource extraction, processing, and communications, everything that you must have for a development. Thus if nuclear reactors are out, and plentiful energy is a must, then this begins to dramatically constrain and inform the architecture, site, and design of the lunar development.

Energy as a Site Selection Constraint

A lunar Synodic month is 29.5 days. A synodic month is the time it takes the moon to return to the same position in the sky relative to the sun, and thus this is the time period of interest, not the 27 day lunar orbit around the Earth. This is ~708 hours, the most important number for energy generation for solar power, which is the only viable alternative to nuclear in a cost constrained development.

In all areas of the Moon except for the polar regions, a lunar day is equivalent to its month. With a 708 hour day we have a night time of 354 hours, thus in any non polar area we not only have to supply power during the day, we have to supply it from some form of storage at night and have enough power surplus during the next day to recharge the energy storage system for the next night. This requirement drove NASA to select nuclear power, and it is one of the things that helped drive the cost of the NASA Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) of the 1980’s over the edge of what congress would pay.  Table 1 shows the difference in power available.

Table 1: Available Power Calculation, Non Polar, North and South Pole Sites

Table 1: Available Power Calculation, Non Polar, North and South Pole Sites

The analysis above is with a 100 kilowatt power supply. We used known factors of day and night, and averaged over the 708 hour period with enough reserve to recharge the energy storage system (not presuming what the storage system is). The average power available is 23. 5 kilowatts for a non polar location. This is clearly inadequate when you consider that the average power on the ISS is about 25-30 kilowatts for six people and little energy intensive activity. Listed here is a selection of sites with known illumination at the lunar poles in the paper by [Mazarico et al., 2011].[i] Figure 1 shows the numbers associated with the sites:

Figure 1: Sites of Maximum Illumination for North (a) and South (b) Polar Regions

Figure 1: Sites of Maximum Illumination for North (a) and South (b) Polar Regions

Site 35 on the (a) map roughly indicates the north lunar pole. The southern lunar pole is to the upper right of site 4 along the crater rim of Shackleton crater. Based on previous work site 1 in the south (1S) and site 2 (2N) on the intersection of the rim of Whipple and Peary craters in the north were chosen.[i] These sites are representative of the best areas in their respective polar regions.

Site 2 North

It turns out that 2N in the north has a total illumination of 598.7 hours of illumination out of a total of 708 hours a total of 84.56% of the time. The time in darkness is only 109.32 hours, well less than a third of non polar sites. This makes a dramatic difference in the power profile. The total energy available rises from 35.4 megawatt hours to 59.9 megawatt hours at ground level and 61.2 megawatt hours a mere 10 meters above the surface. This raises the average hourly energy available to 66.5 kW/hr at ground level and 69.46 kW/hr at 10 meters altitude. This is almost three times the power of a non polar site for the same hardware.

Site 1 South

At site 1S in the south the numbers are better than in the north. The total sunlit time rises to 89.01%, which gives a total energy of 63.0 MW/hr on the ground and 65.9 MW/hr at 10 meters altitude. This gives an average power provided to the facility per hour of 73.68 kw/hr at ground level and 80.61 at ten meters altitude. This is considerably better than some of the previous studies on the subject and is 116% of the average at site 2 north and well over three times that of a non polar site.


If cost minimization and maximum power production are requirements, then it is not even a competition between the polar regions and other areas of the Moon. The difference between the north polar location 2 and the south polar location 1 is substantial, about 7.2 kW/hr at ground level and 11.2 kW/hr at ten meters. If the terrain in the southern region were better this would indicate a clear win for the south polar location. Figure 2 shows a notional “Power Lander” that would have solar arrays that would track the sun in a 360 degree angle at the poles:

Figure 2: Power Landers On the Moon

Figure 2: Power Landers On the Moon

The power lander shown in Figure 2 was designed for a commercial lunar architecture. The vehicle can land approximately 100 kilowatts of solar panels, batteries, and the power conditioning system (480 volts, 60 Hz AC) can simply be plugged into using flight qualified variations of today’s standard plugs. The launch vehicle for this would be a Delta IVH or a Falcon heavy launcher.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to go into detail but our analysis showed that for a viable development on the Moon that could generate significant economic output, at least seven of these would be needed. The average power at site 2N would be about 428 MW/hr total or and hourly average of 486 kW/hr. At site 1S it would be 461 MW/hr and 564 kW/hr respectively.  For a non polar site this same hardware would only generate 248 MW/hr total and 162.75 kW/hr average.

Some of these same locations at the poles that are in full illumination on a seasonal basis depending on where the Moon is at in its 18 year processional cycle. The Mazarico paper illustrates this feature. It has also been theorized that at certain heights above the terrain, above 100 meters, there is full time illumination at both sites. However, for the purposes of this study we will use the average numbers.

An argument can be made, and was at the event, that power is not everything, that resources are important as well. This is a true statement, but without power, resources are worthless. Indeed, your ability to obtain and process resources is directly proportional to your available power. You can always drive to the resources, which will be required no matter where you are sited, but fortunately the vast majority of the volatile resources of the Moon are nearby the sites chosen. We will deal with resources in a following section but next we deal with communications.


Communications is another subject for a lunar site that gets people excited, which usually ends up with bigger ideas which cost a lot more money. With two constraints, one being money, and the other time, what can we do to maximize communications and how does this effect the site selection process? Figure 3 is another graphic from the [Mazarico et al., 2011] paper:

Figure 3: Average Visibility of the Earth from Lunar Polar Regions (a) N, (b) S.

Figure 3: Average Visibility of the Earth from Lunar Polar Regions (a) N, (b) S.

As figure 3 indicates, neither 1S or 2N sites are particularly good from the standpoint of Earth communications. 22N in the north and 33 S in the south both have better visibility and are both in high illumination areas. One thing that is for sure, in this day and age, high bandwidth communications is a must. NASA recently tested the LADEE laser communications link in lunar orbit with a 622 megabits/s downlink data rate. This technology is maturing fast and can be considered the fat data pipe to and from the Earth. A conservative 10 gigabits/s would be for phase 1 (through ten people) of the lunar development.

There are basically two choices that the lunar development architect has when looking at the two sites in terms of communications. The first is to choose a ground based or a space based communications infrastructure. It is quite clear that there will be one dedicated lander at the development site that has the high bandwidth laser-com system. What is not clear at this level of effort, is whether that is the systems solution that lowers the overall cost of the development. The easiest answer is to just have a relay in Earth/Moon L1 and be done with it. That would work for either 1S or 2N. However, that is a single point systems failure that one would like to avoid. An interesting compromise would be to place the laser relay at 22N or 33S. Neither has 100% connectivity to the Earth but there is a side benefit. If you have a set of RF relays at both 1S/33S or 2N/22N you can cover hundreds of square km for local wireless communications and you get ranging as well.

With one station you only get ranging distance to a rover, digger, or water harvester that may be in a permanently dark area, but with two with good separation (tens of km) you have a much more accurate system. Couple this with a technology such as ultra-wideband radio, which can operate at much higher powers on the Moon than the Earth and you get a very wide area communications and ranging system. This argues for two stations at 33S or 22N which can be used to extend the data rate to the Earth when needed, especially for tele-presence operations.

So, in terms of site selection communications is a draw. A much more detailed systems analysis is needed but to the first order a couple of communications stations, coupled with a single satellite in Earth/Moon L1, should deliver all the needed communications for the lunar development.


General Lunar Resources

The moon is rich with resources. Table 2 shows the bulk percentages:[iii]

Table 2: Composition of Lunar Landing Sites in Elemental Percentages

Table 2: Composition of Lunar Landing Sites in Elemental Percentages


The elemental compositions in table 2 are from the Apollo (A11-17), and Luna (16, 20, 24) landing sites. The AFHT in the table is from [Korotev et al., 2003] and represents an average of highlands material as derived from studying lunar meteorites. The problem is that these elements are bound to pesky oxygen molecules. Table 3 shows the Average in molecular percentages:[iv]

Table 3: Apollo/Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Table 3: Apollo/Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Finally, from the same chapter in Resources of Near Earth Space, in table 4 are the molecular constituents of highlands rocks:

Table 4: Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Table 4: Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Both polar regions of the moon are considered highlands regions so table 2 with AFHT and table 4 are the closest datasets that we have. These are just bulk compositions but they should inform the reader that there are far more resources on the Moon than just water. The issue with resources is having enough energy to do the work to separate the oxygen from the metals. Whether or not there is significant repositories of water ice and other hydrogen bound molecules of economic interest in the lunar polar regions, these metal oxides abound. There are also free metals on the moon from the impact of M class asteroids. Some Apollo samples had up to 1% metals in the regolith. This was a highlands sample from Apollo 16 and since both poles are highlands type sites, this will also be a resource, but it is also a draw from our perspective here in determining a site for the lunar development. There is no easy method of extracting metals from oxygen without a lot of electrical, thermal, or chemical energy. However, with the up to 1% free metals from meteorites in this highlands terrain, scooping up regolith and processing it for metals and volatiles is the safe bet for the first go at ISRU. Then there are the rich polar volatile resources that we are just learning about.

Volatiles in the Polar Regions

Figure 4 illustrates our state of knowledge about volatiles on the Moon:[v]

Figure 4: What We Know about Volatiles on the Moon

Figure 4: What We Know about Volatiles on the Moon

This is another thing that differentiates the polar region from any other area of the Moon. Water and or other volatiles are the game changer for building an economically sustainable lunar development. Water, or at least hydrogen which can then be bonded with oxygen to make water, is incredibly valuable on the Moon. Today it costs about $100,000 per kilo for a payload to the lunar surface. Sending water up from the ground has another issue, which is that it is the hydrogen that you want, not the oxygen due to the plenteous nature of oxygen on the Moon. Oxygen is 31 times heavier than hydrogen and thus if you ship water, you are wasting a lot of payload space. Hydrogen sent up has the problems with keeping liquid hydrogen cold at 20 degrees kelvin, which equals expensive, thus if you have hydrogen bearing molecules on the Moon costs can be dramatically reduced.

Rather than go into an extensive examination of the literature on the subject lets remain focused on the point here, which is to determine whether the north 2N, or the south 1S is superior from the perspective of access to what we think are the sources of H bearing molecules on the Moon. Figure 5 shows the extent of Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs), which are indicative of thermal conditions fostering the retention of hydrogen bearing molecules [Mazarico et al., 2011]:

Figure 5: Permanently Shadowed Regions (Average Over 4 Precession Cycles)

Figure 5: Permanently Shadowed Regions (Average Over 4 Precession Cycles)

According to the paper, the total PSR area in the northern polar region is 12,866 sq/km while in the south it is estimated at 16,055. The PSR area in the south is much higher than the previous estimates that our team has used [Bussey et al., 2003]. The PSR area in the south is 2.5 times larger in this paper than in the previous work so the discrepancy must be further investigated. Table 5 from the paper shows the size distribution of PSRs in each polar region:

Table 5: Size Distribution of PSRs For Both Poles

Table 5: Size Distribution of PSRs For Both Poles

The area of the PSRs is substantial at both poles. The much larger size of the south polar region PSRs could be checked against the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) 3 micron absorption bands.[vi] There is another means whereby to test the theory about volatiles in the PSR regions of the Moon. Figure 6 shows the results of radar imaging from the Indian Chandryaan-1 Mini-SAR radar:[vii]

Figure 6: Circular Polarization Ratio (CPR) of the Northern Region of the Moon

Figure 6: Circular Polarization Ratio (CPR) of the Northern Region of the Moon

The above map showing the circular polarization return (CPR) of the Moon’s northern region [Spudis, et al., 2010] and this can be mapped against the PSR values. The Spudis paper differentiates between fresh craters that also would have high CPR values due to scattering of the radar beam by fresh material, and high CPR values from other craters that may be water ice or other hydrogen bearing molecules. The Mini-SAR data indicates its presence in the northern and southern polar regions. This also can be checked against data gathered by the M3 instrument [Pieters et al. 2009] that discovered mobile water and hydroxyls that drift from the lower to the higher latitudes of the Moon. A good study would be to harmonize the results of these works as part of the lunar development’s mission planning.

Besides these higher values for hydrogen bearing molecules in the polar regions in the PSR regions, the entire area has an elevated level of these resources (10-100x the equatorial regions [see table 3 hydrogen ppm]). These elevated numbers indicate that even modest processing of bulk regolith will provide between 1-10 kg of mostly water per square meter of regolith near the poles. While this may not be enough (without extensive regolith movement and cooking) for propulsion, it would easily be enough to provide the crew health and other water needs for the development while the infrastructure is still building up to acquire the higher order resources from the PSR sites in the craters.

In winding up this section on resources it seems that we still have no clear winner between a site at 1S or 2N. This was unexpected and the new results from figure 5 indicate that if you strictly look at PSR values the 1S site is better. However, we know from some of the other remote sensing that the north has the most hydrogen bearing molecules. One thing that might tip the scales to the north is the plentiful nature of small PSR regions. No one has ever built a rover or any other equipment that can operate for long periods of time in temperatures not much higher than liquid hydrogen. This is going to be probably the biggest technical challenge of the entire project. On the other hand the small PSR regions in the north could enable a “dine and dash” strategy where the water capturing equipment dashes into the PSR area grabs a large chunk of the resource and then dashes back out into the sunlight. This would reduce the energy required for heating the unit and could minimize the risk of the infrared heat of the equipment destabilizing the ices themselves.


To me operations is the most interesting aspect of a lunar development. After sorting through the issues of power, communications, and resources, operations makes or breaks the success of the effort. The term operations in this context, comprises all of the things necessary to make the development work. The bullet points covering the scope of operations are as follows.

  • Earth/Moon Transportation
  • Site Preparation and Buildup
  • Local Communications
  • Resource Acquisition
  • Energy Management
  • Long Term Growth

Site selection heavily influences all of the above operational issues and the purpose of early site selection is to lower development cost and maximize the potential upside. Optimizing for only one parameter is guaranteed to drive up the cost of the others. Examining each of the above we can arrive at a gestalt that informs our decision related to which site has the most potential for future lunar development.

Earth/Moon Transportation

Payloads and the transportation network between the Earth and the Moon dominate the capital cost of a lunar development. A significant level of buildup activity must occur before any significant revenue can be generated; this costs time and money. Another thing that costs time and money is scheduling. The polar regions are much better for transportation due to the orbital dynamics involved, as you can launch at any time from the Earth, landing three days later. For non polar sites the wait time averages two weeks for the Earth and the Moon to get properly aligned for a low energy (lower cost) mission. Ironically, we continue with the 50/50 split between the 1S and 2N sites as the energy to each location is identical.

Site Preparation and Buildup

Site preparation and buildup sets the pace for the future success of the lunar development. Mobility, the ability to move around while expending a minimum of energy, is a key determinate for early success. Figure 7 shows a 3X exaggerated terrain for both the north and south polar regions up to 2.5 degrees from the poles:

Figure 7a: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the North Pole

Figure 7a: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the North Pole

Figure 7b: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the South Pole

Figure 7b: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the South Pole

These LOLA gridded terrain maps were produced in a paper for a poster session at LPSC 2012 [Epps and Wingo, 2012] regarding tele-presence lunar rover traverses near the lunar north pole[viii]. In our investigation we rejected the south polar region for route traverses for a major reason, the roughness of the terrain. There are very few routes in the southern polar region for distance travel without excessive terrain excursions. The reason for this is that the area of the South Pole is within the rim of the south pole Aitken Basin, the oldest major basin on the Moon which dates from the Pre-Nectarian period [Stuart-Alexander, 1978; Wilhelms et al., 1979][ix],[x]. This, along with an abundance of other large craters, results in very difficult terrain for traverses. On the other hand, the northern polar region has much less difficult terrain, especially in the direction towards the better known near side Mare region (indicated by the arrow).   If you look at figure 7a, even with the 3X exaggeration, the terrain is flat for a distance of almost 80 km across the floor of the crater.

Referring to figure 7a again, the driving routes from the 2N development site to the nearest small PSRs in the floor of Peary crater are easily discerned. Figure 8a (left) shows the terrain and 8b (right) three driving routes from site 2N:

Figure 8a: Slopes in the Area of Peary/Whipple with 200 Meter Elevation Contours Figure 8b: Examples of Driving Routes from Site 2N to the First Small Peary PSRs

Figure 8a: Slopes in the Area of Peary/Whipple with 200 Meter Elevation Contours
Figure 8b: Examples of Driving Routes from Site 2N to the First Small Peary PSRs

With the availability of the highly accurate LOLA derived digital elevation models for the polar areas it is possible to accurately plan traverses that avoid steeply sloped terrain. Additionally, the LROC 1 meter resolution images will allow traverse planning that avoids small scale hazards such as small craters and boulders.

We have developed a set of tools for route planning in the polar regions. Candidate routes can be initialized by visual inspection of co-registered datasets based on their proximity to locations of interest, avoidance of hazards, and predicted capabilities of vehicles. In Figure 8b three routes are shown. Route one is a short distance, high slope angle route to small PSRs in the northern floor of Peary. Route two is a longer, moderate slope route. Route three provides an example of a significantly longer minimal slope route to the floor of Peary. Also, it passes small PSRs outside of Peary itself. Figure 9a (left) and 9b (right) shows how the LOLA data can be processed for route planning for route two to give distances and slope angles:

Figure 9a: Elevation Vs Distance Route 2:

Figure 9a: Elevation Vs Distance Route 2:

Figure 9b: Slope Histogram Route 2

Figure 9b: Slope Histogram Route 2

The tools that we have developed, based on LOLA, LROC, Lunar Orbiter, and other data sets, form a powerful basis for route planning, resource acquisition, energy management, and communications network planning for a surface development. In our initial deployment of these tools we have found the critical differentiation between the sites 1S and 2N, with 2N decisively better from an access to resources, local communications, and driving routes, including all the way to Mare Frigoris.

For a cost effective site buildup it is imperative that at the earliest possible moment the lunar development begins to use locally derived resources. This will begin with regolith handling, sintering landing pads, and road grading. The tools that are within our grasp now can allow us to accurately plan these activities and to simulate in virtual space and through analog sites on the ground the means to most cost effectively implement the lunar development.

Local Communications

Local communications will only be cursorily addressed in our focus on site selection. However, there are some interesting things to point out. Since most of the outside activity will be conducted with robotic agents of one type or another, high bandwidth local communications as well as ranging will be important. If ranging is done right, then it becomes possible to program swarm behavior for robotic systems, thus influencing the overall robotic systems design. Instead of a few large regolith movers, many small ones can do the task, and most probably, without human intervention after the system is set up.

This idea provides a set of implied requirements for communications and ranging. Here on the Earth we have cell towers and GPS for this, but on the Moon an orbital lunar GPS may not be cost effective, at least in the near term. Thus in the evolving the lunar development site, communications towers for advanced Wi-Fi and ranging will probably be needed. The same tools that allow for traverse planning can be used for communications network development.

It is also quite clear that the very first lander that goes to the development site carry payloads for communications, and some power provisioning as well for follow on systems. This also includes a beacon for automated landing of follow on payloads as well as a local Wi-fi/radar system to assist mobile robotic systems.

Resource Acquisition

Resource acquisition and its detailed implementation, is also beyond the scope of this document. However, site selection has been strongly influenced by the presence of polar water and highlands type resources, known only by the ground truth of the Apollo missions. We know what the minimums are and thus can begin to plan now for these minimum level resources to see if the level zero requirements can be met. Project success hinges on the scale of resources and our ability to obtain and process them. To help us to this end, there have been some amazing detailed studies done in the 1970’s and 80’s by a company called Eagle Engineering that must be examined and revisited with the technologies of today. At this time, with the probable water and metallic resources we can do a good job to scope the project and see where we would be at the end of the deadline. It is our strong opinion, based upon the evidence presented here, that site 2N in the north is our best candidate, though it is imperative to obtain ground truth as early as possible.

Energy Management

Energy management is absolutely crucial to the success of the lunar development. The tools that we have developed can be used to calculate the work required to drive a certain traverse so that energy vs distance vs load calculations can be developed. This will feed back into the power budget for the lunar development to see if what we have estimated back in table 1 is adequate. Indeed, we should be able to model a considerable amount of the effort a priori in a virtual environment to choreograph the development of the site. Developing these tools and the virtual environment would be a powerful first step towards validating the entire concept. This extends to the energy management of the habitats, food growing, resource extraction, and other activities.

Long Term Growth

It is obvious that we want this project and lunar development to extend past the end of 2022 date. Indeed even before that date we should be well on our way to revenue and evolving beyond the initial plan. It is not the purpose here to delve deeply into that but we can look at the site as per its value to longer term lunar development. Figure 10 shows something interesting:

Figure 11: Minimum Traverse Distance from Site 1S to the Nearside Lunar Mare

Figure 10: Long Distance Lunar Route Planning

In just a few days of driving the three Apollo lunar rovers with two crew persons traversed a total distance of over 90 kilometers. This was over all types of terrain, with single use 4×4 vehicles. In figure 10 above there is a mapped route that has been roughly validated using detailed Lunar Orbiter and Lunar Recon Orbiter images. With the increasing density of the LRO LOLA laser altimeter data we should be able to develop terrain maps with LROC image overlays to implement the same type of traverse planning as for the polar regions. An interesting fact is that the traverse above is only a little over 300 km from the development site at Whipple crater to the nearest area on the near side of the Moon (north of Mare Frigoris) that then gives access to the entire near side with very mild terrain from then on.

Surface level access to the entire near side of the Moon is the first exponential growth upside for the lunar development. Propellant is expensive, and to jump from one area of the Moon to another costs almost as much as going to orbit and back, thus is to be avoided. A lunar surface transportation network, allowing medium to high speed transport opens the entire resource base of the near side of the Moon to development. Doing this same thing from the south is more difficult as the distance from the 1S site to the Mare is over three times farther, as shown in figure 11:

Figure 11: Minimum Traverse Distance from Site 1S to the Nearside Lunar Mare

Figure 11: Minimum Traverse Distance from Site 1S to the Nearside Lunar Mare

Now with more work we may be able to lessen this distance but it is not feasible that it will be anywhere near as close as from the northern 2N site to the Mare.

With the near side open to development, the potential for exponential growth of the lunar development is high. Deposits of titanium, thorium, meteoric metals, all become available. The Moon was once called the slag heap of the solar system but it is clear from more recent data that there are very significant metals resources on the Moon. To access, process, and utilize them will require energy. Fortunately there are concentrated thorium resources on the Moon. Figure 12 shows a map of thorium concentrations on the lunar near side:

Figure 12: Lunar Nearside Concentrations of Thorium (From Spudis and NASA)

Figure 12: Lunar Nearside Concentrations of Thorium (From Spudis and NASA)

The concentrations of thorium noted in some of the craters is very interesting. The nearest concentration in the crater Aristillus is no more than 800 km from the polar development. Thorium reactors could be developed in situ on the Moon to provide tens of megawatts of power, plenty to begin real lunar industrialization. Plentiful lunar power enables the economic development of the entire solar system.

The Gestalt

Gestalt is a word from the German that basically means a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This missive has brought together many of the parts that make up the trades toward choosing a development site on the Moon. While we think that the north polar site is the best, there are still reasons to continue with plans to put landers in both areas and to explore both polar regions as well as non polar ones for their resource potential. However, it is our considered conclusion that by beginning at the northern lunar polar site 2N on the rim of Peary and Whipple, this provides the greatest leverage at the lowest cost for a commercial lunar development.

By covering the different high level trades and capabilities of both sites, we can start to get a feel for how a lunar development can be built out. It allows us to start bringing much higher fidelity to cost estimates, we can start to design the robotics, the rovers, and other heavy mobility systems based upon known terrain, something that was not possible before the LRO mission, still ongoing today. A concentrated study based on this site should be able to bring solid costing and a baseline of capabilities for a lunar development. This is where we would advocate some near term funding to pursue this, but without the requirements that a government style contract to do it NASA’s way would bring. For the first time in history we have at leas the minimum information necessary to do this task.

Next Steps

The meeting here in silicon valley was about doing something, not just getting together, talking, maybe writing a paper and then going on to the next shiny interesting space idea. The ideas presented in this missive are derived from our earlier work, and the output from the meeting. It was this idea, to pick a site, to explore what can be done there, that became a powerful element of consensus of the group. The evidence presented here does not preclude the 1S site, indeed it confirms it as an alternate or the phase II of the development. However, the level zero requirements, forces a triage of choices and a focusing of the effort. We don’t have unlimited amounts of money and time to send multiple missions to multiple locations, and then several years down the road make a decision. There is an old saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good. The 2N site is not perfect, but as we have gone through the factors that make for a good site, it would take a lot of work to find one better. That being said, if the first landing finds the site unsuitable, then so be it.

This brings us to our next steps. One thing that is dramatically different today than in previous efforts to develop lunar architectures, we know a lot more about the Moon, from multiple missions. The data products by the Chandrayaan-1, Kayuga, SMART-1, and now the LRO mission (and the scientists who interpret the data) have revolutionized our understanding of the Moon. Beyond that, the new missions have built upon and validated earlier efforts like Clementine, Lunar Prospector, and even Lunar Orbiter and Apollo, to allow a reinterpretation of data from that era in the light of our new knowledge. However, it is now time to do more, to go beyond. Following is a series of recommendations on near term and cost effective steps to pushing lunar development forward.

Data Set Integration

None of the currently existing software packages that have lunar data (Google Moon, Act-React, or the NASA LMMP project) lunar data interfaces is up to the task of what we want to do for mission planning for lunar site development. The tools that we have developed are suitable but need integration into a better global framework that incorporates surface and orbital activities. This would be a very good project, could be open source, and incorporate citizen science and student participation.

Virtual Environments

The global framework developed for data integration could itself be integrated into a virtual environment. Virtual environment technology is on its third iteration of its attempt to become mainstream and with modern computing power, cloud computing, and high bandwidth connections we may be at a point to where the promise of the VR world can finally be brought to bear to solve real world problems.

A lunar VR environment, incorporating the data sets knowledge bases could be a powerful tool for prospecting, operational scenario development, and refinement of designs from various teams. A further integration of real world engineering software for thermal environmental testing, structures, CAD/CAM, additive manufacturing and 3D printing could be a template for building a Tony Stark (the VR environment from the first Iron Man movie) type prototyping environment that could greatly advance the design of a lunar development as well as iron out some of the problems before we get there.

Analog Sites

Current NASA analog sites like Desert RATS that has been done at NASA JSC and in the field in Arizona and the PISCES site in Hawaii are templates for this activity. Figure 12 shows some of our hardware that was at Desert RATS in 2010:

Figure 12: Solar Powered Satellite Communications and Power Infrastructure

Figure 12: Solar Powered Satellite Communications and Power Infrastructure

At Desert RATS in 2010 the NASA Ames center director, over a two hop (Ames-GEO-Earth-GEO-Desert RATS) internet connection, with a 2 second time delay, operated a NASA Ames rover from his office through our hardware shown in figure 12. This was done through a collaboration with the Challenger Center and NASA JSC at the event. Our analog of our Power Lander concept was used to provide power to the NASA habitation unit shown on the left while our communications system provided a link via satellite to a local Wi-Fi setup. We were able to remotely monitor and control our system at the site from a location in Maryland and from California.

These types of activities, when focused on the lunar development goals, can help to move development into rapid progress. Using a Maker community approach we can bring many stakeholders to the table and into the field to bring equipment to test and to validate operational procedures developed in the virtual environments. A good possible place would be at NASA Ames, at least for initial developments, and then into the mining country of California or Nevada.

Wheels on the Ground

It is absolutely imperative to get wheels on the ground, at site 2N as a first choice. Nothing substitutes for in situ data. Still to this day we are reliant on the Apollo and Luna ground truth samples to calibrate our orbital missions. We have excellent terrain and multispectral remote sensing (from orbit) data from the 2N and 1S sites and these must be validated and expanded upon, taking into account local conditions of the regolith.

There is nothing that substitutes for actual data derived from systems on site. This is why NASA has spent so much money on the Mars landers over the years and the scientific payoff has been large. We also know from the plethora of rovers on Mars that there are huge instances of metallic meteorites, a concentrated source of metals that will make building a Martian civilization much easier. It has been my thesis that these objects are on the Moon as well. We know that highlands terrain has more of this than the Mare regions from the Apollo ground truth. Knowing exactly what is there allows for a more intelligent planning for further operations. We know enough now to architect this lander, so this is a good first project and test of the intentions of the benefactors.

Mission and Project Development

Mission development guides, and is guided by, data integration, virtual environments, and analog activities. A well thought out plan that has been put through its paces in the virtual and analog environments has a far higher chance of success than one that does not take advantage of the latest developments in computer based engineering. It is from these activities that confidence can be built, problems spotted before they become expensive in flight failures, investment garnered, and public involvement fostered. When people see what is going on and when anyone can contribute in a meaningful way, the possible perception that this is just rich people’s folly can be mitigated. This must be a well funded effort, as it is impossible to get the fidelity needed to execute on a plan without some serious dedicated effort by a team who spends their available time on the project.

Final Thoughts

It is not our goal to build some kind of space utopia like in the movie Elysium. Our goal is to help develop an off planet economy and begin the development of the resources of the solar system for the benefit of all mankind, everywhere. Most of us who were at the event have the strong opinion that the Moon is the first significant step for mankind. Elon Musk believes in the colonization of Mars, a goal that we also share. However, for a robust colonization of Mars we also feel that a vibrant industrial economy on the Moon, and then the asteroids will bring together Mars and the Earth into an inner solar system wide economy. This is no longer the realm of science fiction. It is time to undertake these activities. It is also our concern that if our society only focuses on the resources of the Earth and keeping our gaze inward, we will lose sight that we are not the center of the universe and as we turn into snarling dogs, fighting for what we rightly feel is our piece of the Earthly pie, we all lose.

The pie is much larger than just the Earth and there is truly enough for everyone, we who have spent our lives in this realm have all the evidence we need to convince ourselves of this. There are also others of means who share our faith in the future and in the possibilities of technological development to bridge the gaps that too many well meaning people see no means of solving except through a regimented society. In a new book by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel called from “Zero to One” the difficulty of bringing imaginings into reality are explored. The book discusses the difference between horizontal progress, which is copying what works somewhere and the replicating that everywhere. Vertical progress which from the title of the book 0 to 1, is the jump in societal capability that technology brings. The premise is valid in that especially in space where building a self sustaining and then exponentially growing off planet civilization is the ultimate vertical progress.

The book’s premise is that our biggest successes as a global civilization in recent decades has been in horizontal progress. This is not a bad thing, and while it is necessary, it is not sufficient to bring what we need to continue in the progress of civilization. If we want to solve the problems of the twenty first century it is time to resume our vertical climb. Doing this will do more to make the world a better place and eliminate threats than any other activity we can engage in.

If done properly, and I believe it can, a lunar development conforming to the level zero requirements and goals outlined here can be achieved. This missive is not the plan, but it can be the beginning of the plan and I see absolutely nothing that precludes this from working. This could not have been said even five years ago, but recent advances in computers, robotics, 3D printing, and of course the launch vehicles of SpaceX has shifted the equation decisively into our favor.

The future is yet to be written…..

[i] Epps, A.D, Wingo, D.R.; Integrating LRO Data Products for Preliminary North Pole Rover Mission Planning, LPSC-2700, March 2012, Houston Texas

[ii] Mazarico, E. et. al; Illumination Conditions of the Lunar Polar Regions Using LOLA Topography, Icarus 211 (2011) 1066-1081

[iii] Prettyman, T.H. et. al; Elemental Composition of the Lunar Surface: Analysis of Gamma Ray Spectroscopy Data from Lunar Prospector, Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol 111, E12007, December 21, 2006

[iv] Waldron, R.D.; Production of Non-Volatile Materials on the Moon, Resources of Near Earth Space, University of Arizona Press, 1990, P262,

[v] Sanders, G.B. et. al; RESOLVE for Lunar Polar Ice/Volatile Characterization Mission, EPSC Abstracts, Vol. 6, EPSC-DPS2011-Preview, 2011 EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2001

[vi] McCord, T.B., et al., Sources and Physical Processes Responsible for OH/H2O in the Lunar Soil as Revealed by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 116, E00G5, 2011.

[vii] Spudis, P.D., et al.; Initial Results for the North Pole of the Moon from Mini-SAR, Chandrayaan-2 Mission, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 37, L06204, 2010

[viii] Epps, A.D., Wingo, D.R.; Integrating LRO Data Products for Preliminary North Pole Rover Mission Planning, Poster 2700, LPSC 2012 Houston Texas, March 2012

[ix] Stuart-Alexander, D. E. (1978), Geologic map of the central far side of the Moon, Scale 1:5,000,000, U.S. Geol. Surv., I-1047.

[x] Wilhelms, D. E., K. A. Howard, and H. G. Wilshire (1979), Geologic Map of the South Side of the Moon, Scale 1:5,000,000, U.S. Geol. Surv. Misc. Invest. Series, I-1162.

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Public vs Private Investment in Zero to One Technologies…

Burke Burnett wrote an amazing comment in my book review about Peter Thiel’s from Zero to One book, enough so that it merits a new post to respond.

Burke, thanks for a thoroughly cogent comment! Keyword in your comment….

..a properly functioning state….

I would argue, that for the most part, at this time, we do not have a properly functioning state. Thiel indirectly states this (lack of progress since 1971) in his book. There is an incredible book that you simply must read. Walter MacDougal’s  “The Heavens and the Earth”, it won the Pulitzer prize, exhaustively researched, and goes to the heart of our problems today by illustrating how government technocrats used the success of Apollo to transform how government works.  The catch phrase was “Well if we can put a man on the Moon certainly we can do X, Y, or Z”.  Those using that catch phrase cared not that what they were referring to could not be accomplished using the Apollo management model and several trillion dollars later we see the results.

I can pinpoint the year when it started (the decline of the properly functioning state), which was FY-1967. This was the first year of NASA’s budget cuts and the beginning of the end of the Apollo program. Did you know that by 1969 all production had ended on the Saturn V, never to restart. All of the Apollo missions were done with that first production run. I have a copy of Boeing’s fiscal year 1966 company report. Spread throughout the glossy tome was pictures of the SST under construction, the Saturn V production line, the 747 beginnings, and a plethora of other advanced programs. Today Boeing talks about maximizing production efficiencies on 40-50 year old jet designs, such as upping the production of the 737 from 42 to 57 units a year….

The U.S. aerospace industrial complex is a shattered shell of what it used to be because the investment in new technology has simply dried up. The reason given for ending the Saturn V production was that we had a deficit and could not afford it anymore. However, I have dug into the FY-67 budget document and found that there was a shift in priorities in the government, not any decrease in spending. I did an exercise where I downloaded our federal budget history since the founding of NASA and the rest of government spending. I used NASA’s high-water year of FY 1966 and normalized that to 1. I did the comparison against 14 federal agencies. In FY 1966 there was only one agency, the DoD that took a greater fraction of government funding. Today 13 out of 14 of these agencies have a larger budget than the agency.  This is shown in table 1 here: (Note: 1983-2011 hidden)

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies: 1966-2014

Additionally, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup and the other large aerospace corporations (having absorbed dozens of companies in the 1990’s) are little more than federal design bureaus, doing very little development on their own dime.  A simple illustration of this is the recent award of the Commercial Crew contracts.  60 days before the award Boeing handed out 60 day pink slips to all the people working on the CST-100.  If Boeing had failed, they would have laid off all the people and that would have been it.  Sierra Nevada Corporation, after failing to get an award has simply shifted gears and is continuing on in the development of the Dream Chaser, aptly named.

I could do this across any of the federal government’s research efforts. The simple fact is that due to the problems in the inner cities and Vietnam in the 1960’s that the democrats and republicans thought might lead to a general insurrection, federal spending priorities shifted. In the job training segment alone, that had an increase that was as much as the decrease in NASA’s budget between FY-1966 and FY 1967. We have been on this trajectory ever since.

I do think, as you do,  that the federal government properly is the macro investor for the nation. Abraham Lincoln called this “internal improvements”. In the late 1700’s it was the states that led the funding of the development of the canal system across New York state and other states. The New York legislature gave Robert Fulton a 10 year monopoly for steamship travel from New York to Albany. This allowed him to obtain the venture funding (to use the modern term) to build his first ship, which was promptly burned by the luddites. It was his second ship that changed the world. The cost of a trip from New York to Albany had been 10 dollars and it took 36 hours on the stagecoach road. The steamship cut that to 10 hours for $7 dollars. Disruptive I think is the term…  As an aside when Fulton went to James Watt for steam boilers, his company’s response was that stationary applications were the only place for steam power.

This extended to the railroads and it was the states that started the railroad rush in the 1830’s-60’s. States bought stock in railroad companies that built railroads across their state. This is why Virginia, New York and other big states rapidly expanded their rail networks. Abraham Lincoln, who had defended the railroad when a steamship (what Thiel talks about when he talks about those who block progress) deliberately ran into one of the supports for a railroad span across the Mississippi (or the Ohio, I forget). This triggered a major lawsuit, which caused the railroad lots of problems, and Lincoln successfully defended them. As president he personally put his political capital at work and pushed through the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which led to the spanning of the continent. Many others followed. Go to Roosevelt and the Panama Canal. Coolidge pushed the passage of the National Highway Act of 1926, that built the first national highway system. The Airmail Act, Hoover Dam, WWII industrial expansion, Airport and air traffic development, The Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956.  All of these things were the province of government for investment, working sometimes alone and sometimes hand in hand with private enterprise to do something that private capital would not undertake.


This has always worked best when they were public/private partnerships, using the power and finance of the state, coupled with the efficiency of free enterprise. This is what Musk has done with SpaceX and Tesla. But, for every Tesla, there are ten Solyndras. These days Musk would have never been able to make this work, but with some level of private finance behind him, which he then has used to leveraged federal dollars, all of us have benefitted. However, this is the exception today rather than the rule.

The politicians are only interested in the next election (both parties) and there is not an ounce of vision between any of the snarling dogs of politics. They would much rather blow trillions a year buying votes, than invest in our future. I would maintain that in just one example, a hundred billion a year, if invested in the development of fusion and or thorium fission, would create more wealth, more jobs, and a much greater GDP increase than current spending patterns. This would improve our physical and intellectual capital and would allow the people to buy their own healthcare. We have abandoned the founding principles of the republic, which universally supported advanced technology (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison). There is far more text in the Constitution about patents than about general welfare.

If we had kept investing in nuclear power technology, space technology, and robotics, 90% of the problems that vex us today would not even be on the radar screen.  There are reasons for this slowdown that is coupled to the environmental movement as well, which at its core is dominated by luddites who simply don’t believe in the power of technology.  They are allied with the politicians, who think that they can use the coercive power of the state to create their version of a green utopia, which is neither.

I agree with you on the other paw that the vast majority of Venture Capital funds have the limitations and foci that you enumerate. This is what I was talking about when it is only a very few of the mega funds, that generates enough free cash flow to allow general partners such as Thiel, Andreeson, Jurvetson, and or Draper to risk some of their net worth in zero to one enterprises like SpaceX.

The challenge to Thiel and the others is that when we are in an era of dysfunction in the government, a portion of their wealth, if applied to the right projects (always hard to evaluate), could make the breakthroughs that the government used to, and then indeed could provide the intellectual and moral foundation to bring popular opinion over to the idea that we should go back to the government funding the future. It is a dream, but at least Thiel, and Jurvetson (I know Steve) and Thiel by reputation, at least understands it, now lets see if they are willing to risk some zeros on their bank accounts.


The above with governments is not just confined to the U.S. but is symptomatic of a general malaise of ideas across governments worldwide.

I described in the last article that Thiel, and many of us would be considered technological optimists.  Absolutely!  The political class only looks at solving problems within the context of their own familiar way of doing things.  One of Thiel’s key insights is that our biggest problems right now are technological in nature and that only technology can solve them.  I happen to strongly agree with that premise, and his contrarian view is the correct one.

We recently had an interesting event at DFJ that bears on this subject, which will be the subject of at least a couple of follow on posts.

Posted in Economic Development, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Space Book Review: Peter Thiel’s “From 0 to 1

Peter Thiel and Ben Master's From 0 to 1

Peter Thiel and Blake Master’s From 0 to 1

From 0 to 1

Its not often that a book about the general development of companies has such direct applicability to space, but Peter Thiel’s book nails it in one.  It is a remarkable insight into the mind of a forward thinking venture capitalist and should be used as a general guide for those of us seeking to build a space business.

Since space is intrinsically a technology business, Thiel’s thesis on the subject (the book has far more of a feel of a thesis than a simple exposition) is that our general societal progress has stymied because of the lack of broad technological progress in the last few decades.  His statement defining from 0 to 1 is:

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

Thiel’s observation is that the last few decades have been marked by broad horizontal progress (globalization) from 1 to n, where the advances of China, India, and other rapidly industrializing and emerging economies are built around basically replicating the American model. This is what he calls 1 to n progress.  While building skyscrapers, superhighways, and mega-airports may be progress, it is not innovation.  While it is obvious that information technology has advanced in the last 43 years (his horizon of interest is 1971 to the present), we have not had the broad advance in technology necessary to assure the continued prosperity and advance of a global civilization.

Why 0 to 1 is Important

Thiel states:

In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

This is absolutely correct and something that many of us, beginning with Gerard K. O’Neil in the 1970’s have discussed as the counter, to the Limits to Growth mindset that really defines the beginning of Thiel’s modern horizon.  Indeed the very premise of the Limits to Growth mindset is that technology cannot save us.  As former Vice President Gore said in his book, “Earth in the Balance”:

The environmental crisis is a case in point: many refuse to take it seriously simply because they have supreme confidence in our ability to cope with any challenge by defining it, gatherings reams of information about it, breaking it down into manageable parts, and finally solving it. But how can we possibly hope to accomplish such a task? The amount of information and exformation—about the crisis is now so overwhelming that conventional approaches to problem-solving simply won’t work.

So in a nutshell Thiel and those of us who are technological optimists are the Yin to the technological pessimists Yang of the political class.  The technological pessimists cannot fathom that technology can solve the problems that we have today but of course they (the political class) can solve them using their favorite tool, politics and the coercive power of government.  This is the defining tension of our age in the west, and thus the question is how and what do we change things in order to show that technological progress is indeed possible, desirable, is our solution to today’s problems, and to foster it?

 Mining Cordiner for Context

What Thiel writes about in postscript is exactly what the CEO and Chairman of the Board of General Electric, Ralph Cordiner spoke about (later written in a book with the chapter title Competitive Free Enterprise in Space) in prescript in 1960 and gets to the core of both the problem and the opportunity that we have today:

….But we must recognize that there are growth tendencies in these government agencies that could overexpand under the pressures of the space program, unless proper safeguards are established. As we step up our activities on the space frontier, many companies, universities, and individual citizens will become increasingly dependent on the political whims and necessities of the Federal government. And if that drift continues without check, the United States may find itself becoming the very kind of society that it is· struggling against-a regimented society whose people and institutions are dominated by a central government……

Ironically it was the state directed technology development of the space program that sewed the seeds of our lack of progress since the end of the Apollo era! There is no question that what Cordiner presented as what he called “an alarmist position” in 1960 has come to pass.  Not only has Cordiner’s alarmist position come to pass, it is now preached by some as the ultimate solution to our problems today.  Again from Albert Gore in “Earth in the Balance” (page 305) for his third strategic goal:

The third strategic goal should be a comprehensive and ubiquitous change in the economic “rules of the road” by which we measure the impact of our decisions on the environment. We must establish—by global agreement—a system of economic accounting that assigns appropriate values to the ecological consequences of both routine choices in the marketplace by individuals and companies and larger, macroeconomic choices by nations.

All guided by the government, the same people that have decided that technology cannot provide our solutions!

So, we have come to the point where regimentation is extolled as the only solution to securing our future.  You need only chart when the U.S. stopped fostering technology development and traded it for our current path, and it coincides almost exactly with the timing of Thiel’s modern age of reduced technological development.  Cordiner had an answer to this, and it brings us back to Thiel:

Therefore it is my view that national economic and military progress will be faster and more solid, and the freedoms we cherish will be preserved, if competitive private enterprise does just as much of the nation’s scientific and technical work as possible-and government provides the legal and policy framework to stimulate outstanding technical performance.

Thiel’s Thesis

Peter Thiel of course is a venture capitalist, and a leader on some of the most successful entities in Silicon Valley.  In some ways Silicon Valley is the ultimate enclave of technological optimism in the world today.  How else would you have a university (unaccredited) called Singularity University, where they preach the absolute opposite meme of the pessimists; that we are on the cusp of a convergence of technologies that will usher in a new golden age of plenty and prosperity for all mankind.  Unfortunately this is treated almost like the invisible hand of inevitability.  Thiel addresses this:

New technology has never been an automatic feature of history.!!!

This is the essence of the second part of his thesis in that we have traded the definite future of technological progress that was deeply embedded in American culture of the post war world to what he calls the indefinite future.  Basically that we have substituted definite progress toward the future with some indefinite hope in the future.  We now think that things are going to get better, we just believe it, think of it as automatic, but as Thiel writes, automatic progress has never been part of history.  As a general trend this is how he states it:

Everyone learned to treat the future as fundamentally indefinite, and to dismiss as extremist anyone with plans big enough to be measured in years instead of quarters. Globalization replaced technology as the hope for the future.

In the space business we see this every day with the infinite number of NASA trade studies leading to indefinite plans for space exploration, that somehow never quite make it to reality.

It is an embedded assumption in parallel with Cordiner by Thiel that the way forward is via private enterprise, startups, and technological development.  His favorite ones are ones with a secret, a new way of looking at things, and with plans to do more than write some code, build a bit of market an then flip it to the big boys for a cash out.  He introduces an interesting term that goes to back to the opening of his book where he talks about the his contrarian question.  He states that he asks this of people that come to him wanting investment.

His contrarian question is this:

What is it that you believe, that few others believe?

His answer is:

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.

In this he is absolutely correct as no amount of globalization or indefinite trust in the future can solve the fundamental problems of energy, natural resources, pollution, and the desires of even the most humble in the world to have a standard of living that Americans have enjoyed.

Thankfully Thiel’s solution is not to ask for more government but to take the Cordiner approach and put his faith and financial resources in the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, and their answers to the contrarian question.  His seven Socratic questions that he asks in order to judge which companies he thinks have the greatest potential to bring the technological breakthroughs that are necessary for our future:

The seven questions.

  1. The Engineering Question

Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?

  1. The Timing Question

Is now the right time to start your particular business?

  1. The Monopoly Question

Are you starting with a big share of a small market?

  1. The People Question

Do you have the right team?

  1. The Distribution Question

Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?

  1. The Durability Question

Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?

  1. The Secret Question

Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

These are great questions that are geared toward the breakthrough companies.  To me it is hopeful as it is all geared toward developing enterprises dedicated to definite progress in technology.

Read this Book!

To me his book is much more of a reconfirmation of the research, readings, and writings that many of us have done over the past several years related to space development, with the added bonus of being able to get into the head of a leading venture capital visionary.  Thiel is part of the Paypal Mafia that also has produced Elon Musk, who all of us in the space business know is a stellar embodiment of what Thiel writes about.  What I hope is that this book will become a necessary book on the shelves of all of our bay area VC’s and that it helps to create a mindset of investing in technology.

Thiel postulates something that has already been cast as controversial in the media, which is his belief in the power of monopoly.  Early in the book he goes into the fact that only a very few companies in any VC portfolio are stellar performers, mostly companies that are defacto monopolies, something the companies themselves try to hide lest they attract the attention and ire of the government.

The monopoly companies, like Apple, Google, Amazon, and others have sufficient profits to be able to experiment and innovate on a large scale, and that companies that are hamstrung in their profits by excessive competition do not have the resources to continue innovating and thus their growth halts or they become focused on other (fake) metrics of success like increasing the stock price by large share buybacks.

I would posit that the VC business follows a similar trajectory as the companies that they invest in.   A Kauffman foundation report from 2012 goes into this in detail in that there are only a very few Venture Capital organizations that themselves have the outstanding performance that gives them the resources to innovate in their investments and take risks in 0 to 1 companies.  As one of my investors once said, it is always easier to write the second check, and it is always easier to follow what has already been done.  Thus it is the super successful ones that have the resources to experiment, if they have the mindset to do so.

Thiel’s Vision

There is no doubt that Thiel, and others like Marc Andresson of Andresson Horowitz and Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson have followed this path.  They are among the most successful in the business here in Silicon Valley.  Most of them have invested in SpaceX, Tesla, and other technology ventures.  Some of them have long investment horizons, like SpaceX and it is only those VC organizations with sufficient stature and track record that can make these investments.

As someone who has pushed radical technology development in spacecraft development for a long time, it is a very hopeful thing to see someone of Thiel’s stature write something that will be read by his peers here in Silicon Valley.  There are many 0 to 1 space companies out here that have been starved for resources during the era of 1 to n investing.  Elon Musk and SpaceX has helped lead the way for space, its time to take the advice proffered by Thiel and work to make more of them!

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ISEE-3 in Safe Mode

Since the lunar flyby on August 10th the ISEE-3 Reboot team has continued to work with Google Creative labs to bring to full fruition the website to provide real time data from ISEE-3. We have been working with the various dishes that have supported us until now, including Arecibo, Bochum, the SETI Institute, Morehead State and others. We now have a problem.

The ground stations listening to ISEE-3 have not been able to obtain a signal since Tuesday the 16th. Arecibo, Morehead, Bochum, SETI, as well as the Usuda 64 meter dish in Japan and the Algonquin 45 meter dish in Canada have all pointed at the spacecraft with no positive results. So, at this time we are assuming that the spacecraft has gone into safe mode.

What This Means

Safe mode on ISEE three can basically only occur from one problem, loss of power. Before the lunar flyby ISEE-3 orbited closer to the sun than the Earth. This resulted in a very good power profile for the spacecraft. However, as seen in the figure 1 here, since the flyby the spacecraft is traveling much farther away from the sun than it has been before:

Figure 1: ISEE-3 Post Flyby Trajectory (Courtesy of Mike Loucks

Figure 1: ISEE-3 Post Flyby Trajectory (Courtesy of Mike Loucks

We have not had many opportunities to get data from the spacecraft since the flyby as the antenna configuration has also been much worse from an attitude perspective. Also, we no longer have propellant to change the attitude of the spacecraft to improve this configuration. We can change the antenna pointing a bit but the first time we tried it, it did not work.

Next Steps

When ISEE-3 goes into safe mode it turns off all of the experiments and it turns off both transmitters and waits for help. Due to some uncertainty in the trajectory this may end up being a bit more of a problem than otherwise. We are working now to put together the commands to turn the transponders back on and obtain engineering telemetry. The last telemetry we have looked ok, but the spacecraft is still traveling farther away from the sun, and thus it is probable that last week the voltage on the power bus dropped enough to trigger the safe mode event. There is no functioning battery on the spacecraft now as it failed in 1981.

So, stay tuned for more information.

Dennis Wingo

ISEE-3 Project Co-Lead

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ISEE-3 Post Lunar Flyby Status and Modification of Mission Goals

Mission Status

Communication with the ISEE-3 satellite was successfully re-established with the goal of commanding the satellite to change its trajectory with the goal of putting it into a libration point orbit that would allow it to resume its original mission goals of collecting data for solar physics research. The trajectory change goal unfortunately could not be completed due to the failure of the onboard thrusters. This failure was apparently the result of the loss of nitrogen pressurant in the Hydrazine fuel system.

This inability to change the spacecraft’s orbit rules out the original reboot mission goals which would have provided long-term data collection from the satellite instrumentation package using modest antennas. After the orbit change attempt, the ISEE-3 Reboot Team powered on the instrumentation package and began data collection from the instruments to assess their current physical status and usefulness for any ongoing scientific mission.

We are now redefining our mission goals to obtain the maximum scientific usefulness of ISEE-3 in its new interplanetary orbit. Figure 1 shows the flyby orbit and the long-term sun centered (heliocentric) orbit.

Figure 1: ISEE-3 Trajectory Through Aug 2016 (image courtesy

Figure 1: ISEE-3 Trajectory Through Aug 2016 (image courtesy

This rendering shows the projected position of ISEE-3 through August of 2016. The flyby of the Moon increased the orbital energy of the spacecraft. The original orbit, from 1983 through August 10th 2014 was interior to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. The orbit of the Earth is the light blue ellipse. The red line is the new orbit, but with respect to the Earth. This is why there is the small red ellipse in the first year near the Earth/Sun L5 location. That the large and small ellipse represents is the eccentricity of the orbit. The top of the large ellipse represents the maximum distance from the sun, which is about 1.2 astronomical units or about 180,000 kilometers.

The ISEE-3 spacecraft is traveling slower than the Earth during this time. The top of the small ellipse is the closet point to the sun, which touches the orbit of the Earth, which is about 146 million kilometers from the sun. Figure 2 shows the orbit for the next 15 years, until the return of the spacecraft for another encounter in seven years at about 30 million km and then back to Earth orbit in 15 years in August of 2029.

Figure 2: ISEE-3 Trajectory through August of 2029

Figure 2: ISEE-3 Trajectory through August of 2029

Besides being a beautiful example of how orbits look different (depending on how the data is displayed), figure 2 provides a lot of information to our team. Due to the malfunction of the propulsion system the flyby of the Moon on August 10th 2014 at an altitude of between 14,000-17,000 km resulted in ISEE-3 gaining enough energy to shift its orbit around the sun by a total of about 50,000 km. The flyby also changed the plane of the spacecraft’s orbit, from nearly co-planer with the ecliptic (the zero plane of the Earth’s orbit with respect to the sun) to a maximum of about 3.5 million kilometers above the plane of the ecliptic. Figure 3 shows the near term magnitude of this change:

Figure 3: Near Term Change in ISEE-3 Distance Above Ecliptic Plane

Figure 3: Near Term Change in ISEE-3 Distance Above Ecliptic Plane

This change in Z altitude creates a near term problem for our operations. Figure 4 shows the nature of the problem:

Figure 4: ISEE-3 Medium Gain Antenna Beam Angle

Figure 4: ISEE-3 Medium Gain Antenna Beam Angle

There are two main antennas on the ISEE-3 spacecraft. The Medium Gain Antenna (MGA) has a gain of 7.5 dbi maximum and an intermediate gain antenna with a maximum gain of -0.5 dbi. The spin axis of the spacecraft is not exactly normal to the ecliptic. It is currently about 1.8 degrees in the wrong direction, but this is accounted for in the graph in figure 4. Figure 5 shows the relevant part of the pattern of the medium gain antenna:

Figure 5: MGA Beam Pattern vs Angle to the Earth (late August 2014)

Figure 5: MGA Beam Pattern vs Angle to the Earth (late August 2014)

It turns out that while at the present time, the MGA primary beam is not pointed at the Earth, one of the secondary beams (first minor lobe), is pointed close enough. What this means to us is that the MGA is still the best bet for our continued reception of the signals for ISEE-3 for the duration of its new interplanetary sojourn. However, in recent days this has caused us problems in receiving data from our ground stations, a problem that will solve itself soon, that is until the spacecraft gets too far away from us, which will happen by the end of the year as shown in figure 6:

Figure 6: ISEE-3 Distance from the Earth Through The End of 2014

Figure 6: ISEE-3 Distance from the Earth Through The End of 2014

It is not that easy to tell from the graph in figure 6, but the distance from the Earth of ISEE-3 is increasing faster as it moves away from the Earth, than it did on the way in. This is because the spacecraft is farther from the Earth now in heliocentric distance, than on the way in, about twice as far. This is why that we will not be getting much data after early 2015 until it gets close to the Earth again in 2021.

Spacecraft Health

As far as the health of the spacecraft goes, it is pretty good. Our biggest concern for the long-term health of ISEE-3 is related to temperature. The spacecraft will be an average of about 50 million km farther from the sun than the previous orbit, and this will have an effect on temperatures internal to ISEE-3. Even though there is no pressure in the hydrazine propulsion system, we still have to be concerned about the hydrazine freezing. If the lines or the hydrazine in the tanks freeze, then thaw in several months when the spacecraft gets closer to the sun again, then this will present a danger. Hydrazine eats spacecraft, and leaking hydrazine is not a good thing to have. We can leave the propulsion system heaters on but that has an impact on our next largest concern, which is power

As the spacecraft moves farther away from the Earth, sunlight gets weaker and thus the amount of power generated by the solar arrays is less. We were astonished when we found out prior to the flyby that the solar arrays were putting out considerably more than current computer modeling of array degradation suggested.   This is a major mission enabler now that the spacecraft is outside of the Earth’s orbit.

Marco Collelouri (our controls and AOCS engineer) ran a calculation that indicates that our minimum power will still be about 86 watts at 1.2 astronomical units, the aphelion of the ISEE-3 orbit. This does mean that we will have to turn off one of the two transponders, but if we do that we can then power the most critical experiments, which begins to lead us to the science part of this status report.

One last note about spacecraft health is that though we do see some degradation in the electronics on the spacecraft, including the communications system, we feel that there is every chance that in seven years, and even in fifteen years, ISEE-3 will still be a functional spacecraft, a remarkable testament to the people that built it!

The ISEE-3 Interplanetary Science Mission

Though the planned mission goals cannot be met the reboot team feels ISEE-3 still has a useful scientific role to play. In its current orbital configuration the spacecraft will be able to provide data from a number of instruments as outlined in the previous section. Ground station tracking and data collection is the most critical of the factors. With increasing distance of the satellite from Earth we face the challenge of receiving a weakening signal. The ability to command the satellite to turn on/off or configure instruments must also be considered and the window for determining which experiments to turn on and support is very short if we are to realize the maximum scientific benefit.

The ISEE-3 Reboot team has reviewed data from the spacecraft obtained since repowering the instrumentation package to determine the validity of the data and health of the instruments onboard. In the case of a number of the instruments the original Principal Investigators have been contacted and sent samples of the data for review and we are currently waiting for their analysis. A list of the onboard experimental packages and the current instrument status can be found in table 1:

Table 1: Experiments and Their Proposed Status (Conditional)

Table 1: Experiments and Their Proposed Status (Conditional)

The ISEE-3 Reboot team feels that at this point time is of the essence in redefining mission goals and configuring the satellite and propose the following plan to be implemented immediately.

  1. Redefine the mission as a solar physics data acquisition of indefinite length. The new mission length will be measured in weeks and months and will be ultimately defined by loss of telemetry. The limited power budget of the satellite and the slower telemetry data rates will require us to select only a subset of the onboard instruments for the ongoing mission with more instruments being shut down as lower data rates render them less useful. An initial list of instruments and their proposed status is contained in Table 1. Initially, the cosmic ray instruments will be powered off and further instruments will be powered off as the data rate slows. We are soliciting the input of the ISEE-3 science community for their recommendations.

2) Solidify current tracking station commitments and solicit new resources (dishes) to extend data collection time. The amount of useful data will be determined by the signal strength which determines the data transfer rate we can use. The signal strength will be a function of the gain of the ground stations we use.  Currently the ground stations we have do not provide 24 hour coverage and the satellite cannot buffer data so there will be data lost regardless of satellite distance. Since ISEE-3 has passed the closest point to earth and is now on an outward bound trajectory the soliciting of new ground station tracking with higher gain antennas and longer coverage is imperative to the success of the new mission goals.

Public Outreach

The website was set up in collaboration with Google Creative Labs, a kind of think tank for the company. They have poured considerable resources into this, partially as a way to tout the graphics and capabilities of the Chrome browser, but they have been incredibly supportive of our science goals. This commitment continues. We are working toward getting the full real time data display system working within the next several weeks. The purpose of this is to promote STEM education and the dissemination of science data to the public as well. Not only is the real time data going to be available for use by citizen scientists, the data will also be archived and preserved. The data will also be provided to the science community for conversion to their preserved science data formats for their own purposes.

It should be clear that one of the core ideas behind the ISEE-3 Reboot Project has been citizen science. What does that term mean? For us it is the ability for people to see our data, and for us to provide explanations and context for the data. You might ask, don’t scientists do this already? Well, yes but often it gets lost in translation. Solar physics and the study of it is exceptionally important to our modern civilization. In the recent solar cycle (cycle 24), the majority of the community was considerably mistaken in their predictions related to solar activity. It is of major importance to our civilization to understand why we don’t understand the sun and to build support for investments to increase our level of understanding.

Recent articles have reached the public consciousness about how a solar flare could basically fry all of our technology and how one missed the Earth in 2012. It is a known fact that one such flare happened in 1859 and caused havoc on even our primitive telegraph system at the time. Anyone that says that we fully understand the Sun, does not fully understand the sun or the state of the science today. In an era of competing financial priorities in government, communicating this to the public is important for all of us as without modern electrical systems, we would all be in a very difficult position, extremely quickly.

What’s Next

So expect to see more from us in the very near future. After the rush of the flyby we took a bit of a break but we are moving forward with the new “ISEE-3 Interplanetary Citizen Science Mission”. As soon as we have the real time display systems and reliable ground station communications support we will start putting more data out to be seen. We cannot sufficiently express our appreciation to the ground stations that have helped us make this a reality. Arecibo, our national treasure, in Puerto Rico. The Bochum Radio Observatory in Germany, our reliable friends and the ground station that first got us interested in ISEE-3. Morehead state in Kentucky has provided crucial support for transmitting to the bird of late. And the SETI Institute has been listening in as well. We are working to increase this list, but without these folks and their dishes, this would not have happened…


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We Are Borg: Crowdsourced Engineering and the Collective Mind of the Internet

We are Now Living in a Science Fiction World

In the science fiction universe of Star Trek, set several hundred years in the future, when we are a spacefaring civilization, humanity encounters a species called the Borg.  The Borg are a conglomeration of species who are assimilated into a collective mind numbering in the hundreds of billions.  All of the borg are connected to each other through a communications link that allows each of them to share each others thoughts, though in a manner that erases individuality.

This week, with the call that our ISEE-3 reboot team put out to the internet for help in debugging our propulsion system problem, I have come to realize that a significant portion of humanity has reached a Borg like state, one where the internet has become a collective mind for communications and knowledge sharing.  We still have our individuality, we can still decouple at will from the collective mind, but in a way that few philosophers or technologists have envisioned, we are connected in a way never before thought possible.  The implications are staggering, and here is how our little ISEE-3 project is an example of the operation of the collective mind.

ISEE-3 Trajectory Correction Maneuver Attempt

On July 8th and 9th the ISEE-3 reboot team attempted to fire the radial thrusters on the spacecraft.  Figure 1 shows the configuration of the thrusters:

Figure 2: The ISEE-3 Spacecraft Details

Figure 1: The ISEE-3 Spacecraft Details, including propulsion [1]

 The thruster firing on the 8th was a follow up to the successful spin up maneuver that was performed on July 2nd, 2014.  The engine firing on both the 8th and the 9th was unsuccessful in producing the thruster needed to change the course of the spacecraft to what is necessary for the lunar flyby on August 10th.  After the largely unsuccessful Trajectory Correction Maneuver (TCM), on the 8th, our team decided on a strategy to both use alternate thrusters and to troubleshoot the propulsion system.  On the 9th the TCM was also largely unsuccessful (a few pulses out but no substantial change in course).  After a bit of team depression that the mission was over, a failure investigation was started.  Following are the results of that failure investigation, and our plan for recovery.

First TCM Attempt July 8th

After the successful July 2nd spin up maneuver we had high hopes for the TCM.  We had learned quite a bit about the operation of the spacecraft and the spin up maneuver made us and our NASA partners confident in the next steps.  Indeed it was the successful spin up maneuver that allowed NASA to give us permission for the TCM.  However, as events would unfold, this confidence was to be misplaced.

As those who have read of our exploits know, the ISEE-3 is a spinning spacecraft.  It spins quite rapidly, at 19.75 (19.787 right now) RPM or about one rotation every 3.04 seconds.  The thrusters for the propulsion system that allows for an in plane change in velocity are located on panels 1 and 9 (redundant) of the spacecraft.  This is shown in figure 2:

Figure 2: ISEE-3 Thruster Locations and Designations

Figure 2: ISEE-3 Thruster Locations and Designations [2]

 Figure 3 shows the schematic of the propulsion system from the same AIAA paper from 1979:

Figure 3: ISEE-3 Propulsion System Schematic

Figure 3: ISEE-3 Propulsion System Schematic

The spacecraft has two completely redundant fuel, latch valve, and thruster systems.  The thrusters for dV maneuvers are located on the exterior of the spacecraft around the circumference as shown in figure 2.  These are the “radial dV” thrusters.  For the maneuver on the 8th we used thruster’s F and N, which are connected to the HPS 1 tank system.  Everything proceeded normally as we followed the worksheets provided by our documentation.  Things went much better from a commanding perspective as we were able to leave the transmitter and power amplifier in transmit mode at Arecibo while we received telemetry pipelined to us over the internet from the radio telescope at Bochum Germany, which is operated by the AMSAT DL team there.

When we fired the thrusters for the TCM maneuver, initially things looked great, but soon we saw a fall off in thruster performance as monitored by an accelerometer designed for this purpose.  This is shown in figure 4:

Figure 4: Telemetry Profile for July 8th TCM

Figure 4: Telemetry Profile for July 8th TCM

The upper graph is of the accelerometer output during the three firings.  The middle graph is the plot of the Fine Sun Sensor (FSS), which gives orientation.  The bottom graph is the telemetry value indicating whether or not the Latch Valve opened or not.   At this scale it is hard to see the actual acceleration values and they are in counts, not m/sec squared.  It is quite clear the fall off in thrust in the first maneuver.  We now know that the latch valve was not opened (we did not then).  Later, and before we did the second attempt, we see the sun angle decrease.  This so far has not been explained adequately.

The third attempt is the most interesting.  We started wondering about the latch valve and then sent the command for it to open again.  It opened.  The difference is that we did not have the +28 volts on the first time as none of this is in the procedures that we currently have available.  After we commanded the latch valve to open with + 28 volts on we saw telemetry confirmation opening.  Figure five shows what we saw in detail regarding the FSS sensors:

Figure 5: Fine Sun Sensor Angle Variations

Figure 5: Fine Sun Sensor Angle Variations

While this is probably hard to read on a screen but figure six is toward the end here when we first got confirmation that the latch valve between the tanks and the propellant lines was opened:

Figure 6: Latch Valve Opening Vibrations for FSS and Accelerometers

Figure 6: Latch Valve Opening Vibrations for FSS and Accelerometers

The latch valve opens at 9200 seconds and there is an immediate effect on the accelerometer and the FSS sensor.  The data rate is 8 hz for the accelerometer and 1/8th hz for the FSS sensor so there is a lot of aliasing but the influence is clear to see.  This is normally in the form of vibrations on the spacecraft that gives the appearance of a change in FSS pointing, though not in the longer term.  The end result is that we never got the thrust that we expected on July 8th, whether or not we had indications of latch valve open.

Evaluation of July 8th Attempt and Plan for the 9th

Our evaluation of what happened that day is different than what we know now but it informed how we operated on the ninth and thus is instructive to deciphering the nature of the overall problem.  Our evaluation that day was that we thought that the hydrazine tanks in fuel system 1 (on the left in figure 3) was depleted of fuel and pressure.  Our pressure transducers indicated that there was no pressure in fuel system 1 and only minimal (about 4 psi) in fuel system 2.  We also were very unsure of the telemetry indicator for the operation of the latch valves.  Thus the plan was to first attempt to do the maneuver with the fuel system 1 (but use latch valve C rather than A) and thrusters E and M on the other side of the spacecraft.  This would have the effect of using a different set of fuel lines but with the same fuel system tanks.  Then we would then repeat the test using fuel system 2 and the same thrusters (E,M).  If this did not work then we would open latch valve B on fuel system two and repeat with thrusters (E,M).  If that did not work then the final test would be to use latch valve D with thrusters (F,N).

The Attempt on the 9th

The results on the 9th were pretty much the same as on the 8th.  We initially made the same mistake by commanding latch valve C when the 28 volts was not on.  The results were basically as they were the day before.  Figure 7 shows the result of the first firing:

Figure 7: Accelerometer and Other Telemetry Indicators July 9th

Figure 7: Accelerometer and Other Telemetry Indicators July 9th

As you can see, the uppermost blue line is the accelerometer output.  It looks pretty much like the trace in figure 4.  It is opposite in sign because we used thrusters E,M, and sector 556 (the other side of the spacecraft) to start pulsing.  The pale flesh covered lines are where we pulsed (21-30) the latch valve.  There were other thruster firings done, but none of them with any effect.  This ended the pass for July 9th.

Failure Investigation

After a short bout of team depression, we got started on our failure investigation.  In learning how to be an engineer, it is just as instructive to study failure, and many times more so, than to study success.  I have read virtually every failure investigation in the last 50 years for in space failures, from the early Ranger days to GEO comsats, and Shuttle failures.  There is a common thread that not too many people write about, which is that these failure investigations almost always include people from outside of whatever organization was building or flying the system that failed, and that these guys were normally the best in the business.  Another common denominator of such failure investigations it that they take time and lots of money.  Our team has neither.

We seriously thought that there were no options going forward, but in order to understand what happened, and to see what we could learn, we decided to dig into the telemetry and see what happened and to see if we could determine the failure mechanism.  No one on our team is an experienced hydrazine expert.  My own expertise is more in communications, avionics, and power systems, with a good bit of experience in ion propulsion.  Marco Collelouri, our controls and AOCS engineer is very smart, but without a lot of experience.  Thus I felt, after receiving a few emails from people who offered suggestions on what might have happened, decided to throw the problem out to the world.  I was astonished at the response.

The Collective…..

On the 10th we threw out a few questions related to some suggestions that had been sent to us by some of our global distributed network of supporters unsolicited.  Keith put this on NASA Watch and  We immediately started getting responses.  While, as one might expect, many of them were uninformed, though enthusiastic, some were from the most qualified professionals in the world.  I am not going to name names at this time and without their permission but literally, the very top tier of experts started weighing in.

We sent them telemetry, and information on the spacecraft.  Fortunately there is a lot of information out there on ISEE-3, especially from the AIAA (see our references at the end of the article).  With this, and with our telemetry that is also public, we started to build a picture of a set of plausible failure modes and the state of the system.  I must stress that I have had multiple interactions with different groups of experts, some from industry, some from government, and some international.  I have not shared a lot of the information from one group to the other in order to get their unbiased responses, until a consensus started to emerge.  We also were able to be put in touch with (again, through a senior industry engineer), with some a retired person from TRW, the company that built the propulsion system in the first place.  Even though this person did not personally build the one from ISEE-3 he did know the general design and had extensive experience with hydrazine propulsion systems.

The Conclusions of the Ad Hoc ISEE-3 Hydrazine Propulsion System Failure Study

After just a few days of consultations with these groups, and a consensus started to form some common elements stand out.  Here is what we know about the state of the HPS system.  Please refer back to all previous figures as this explanation unfolds.

Integrity of the Propulsion System Finding 1

It is quite clear from the telemetry that both fuel system 1 and 2 downstream of the latch valves was still fully pressurized.  If this had not been the case, we would have not had a successful spin up maneuver, nor would we have had the initial thrust from both fuel systems on the 8th and the 9th.  This means that the following hardware is working:

1. All thrusters have their seals intact and the thrusters provided impulse, showing that the catalyst beds are also intact (or at least mostly so).

2. The propellant lines downstream of the latch valves are also intact and were fully pressurized.

3. Temperatures in the system are high, in some cases, in excess of what is desirable, though not dangerously so.  Temperatures in the propellant tanks are well within bounds.

Here is what we don’t know.

1. How much pressure is in the tanks (the options are failed sensors or depleted tanks).

2. The true status of the latch valves.

Procedures, Finding 2

We made a procedural mistake.  That mistake was turning the latch valves on without + 28 volts applied.  In our defense this was not in the AOCS procedure worksheet, though looking back into the old Mission Operations Plan, checking their status was part of the procedure.  We thought that when we did not have an indication of operation, that the telemetry was dead, which is also the case in the communications system.  Sometimes we imply the state of the spacecraft when telemetry is dead, by looking at whether the command that we sent was executed.  So the latch valve status we thought was dead.  It turns out this was incorrect.  We corrected this in the middle of firing on the 9th, but it did not effect the propulsion system operation as can be seen in figure 7 and right at the right edge where we initiated propulsion but got no response.  After we turned on the +28 volts and commanded the latch valves, they did successfully response (commands 21-30 as shown in figure 7).  You can see that the latch valves vibrated the spacecraft in the accelerometer data.  However, we did not have time before the end of that pass to fully investigate the issue.


So the above is what we know.  Now we had to use our own knowledge and that of our outside experts to eliminate, one by one, possible failures.

Propellant Tanks and Upstream Propellant Lines

In examining the telemetry we know that the HPS-1 and 2 fuel systems downstream of the latch valve were fully pressurized.  This eliminates loss of fuel and nitrogen this way.  We also know, and it was our rookie mistake, that nitrogen does not dissolve in Hydrazine, more than just by fractional amounts.  This is why it is used as a pressurizing gas.  We also know that this is a blow down system (see reference 2), which means that the nitrogen gas is mixed with the hydrazine and not in a separate bladder or pressure tanks.  This is a simpler system and it eliminates failure modes.  Thus there is only three ways that we could have lost fuel and pressurizant from the system.

The first way is through the latch valves.  We already know that there was pressure downstream of the latch valves and thus that is eliminated.

The second way is that the fuel and pressurizant could have been lost through either the fill and drain valves or the fill and vent valves.  There are two reasons this is not plausible.  The first is that as far as our experts know, neither of these types of valves have ever failed in flight as they are physically capped before launch.  Also, if they had failed, it is even less likely that they would fail over ten years after launch.  Even less likely than that would those valves failed in both systems.

The third way would be a failure in the propellant lines upstream of the latch valves.  While this has happened in the past.  It is unlikely to have happened in both fuel systems, and if it had, there would be serious consequences for the spacecraft as Hydrazine eats spacecraft wiring and other hardware.  If that had happened it is likely that the spacecraft would have been lost.  Also, this would have had an effect on the attitude of the spacecraft, which we did not see when we first tabulated the telemetry after recovery.

Thus the conclusion of virtually all of our experts is that it is highly unlikely that fuel and propellant has been lost in the system.  This brings us to the next postulation.

Latch Valves

The latch valves on this spacecraft were built by Hydraulic Research (see reference 2).  These valves were popular and used on several spacecraft.  In researching the company, we found documents related to pressure testing and leak testing of the valves.  The valves do preferentially allow diffusion of nitrogen through the seals (we found this data on the NASA technical reports server).  However, since the lines downstream were pressurized, it is unlikely that this happened.  For this mechanism to operate would take further diffusion of the nitrogen through the thruster valves which is also unlikely with full pressure there.

What we did find, and I can’t be too specific here as this information is not in the public domain, is that there are different seal materials and that the type that most probably flew on this spacecraft is subject to temperature based swelling.  Since we also see very high temperatures, in excess of 62 degrees C on the upper propellant lines, which are in contact with the valve, we now have a plausible culprit for our problem.

This possibility is enhanced by our own mistake in how we operated the latch valves prior to figuring out that we had to have the +28 volts on to actuate the valve. This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that later we did actuate the valves and did see physical vibration of the spacecraft from our opening and shutting the valve (commands 21-30 in figure 7 indicate that something happened).  There is a case to be made that the valves did not actually open and we did not fully investigate this during our short Arecibo pass last week.


The upper propellant lines near the latch valves is above their specified operating temperatures.  We found that the line heaters have been on since the last propulsion maneuver in 1987, or over 27 years.  While the temperatures are not dangerously high, the long term storage of hydrazine at elevated temperatures can cause the slow decomposition of hydrazine into ammonia and nitrogen and then eventually into nitrogen and hydrogen.  Did this happen?  We have no idea as there is no pressure transducers in the lines.  However, one of our outside experts worked on the Magellan to Venus mission and gas evolution in the propellant lines was seen there.

Since this was a mission to Venus, a planet that gets twice the radiative heat that the Earth gets, and since ISEE-3 came considerably closer to the sun every 354 days for 27 years, it is very plausible that this happened.  If it did, we would still get thrust out as we saw, but there would be gas in the propellant lines.  We did see large drops in temperature in the hot upper propellant lines and large increases in the lower propellant lines.  Rapid swings in temperature could be from gas and or hot ammonia (NH3 a decomposition product of Hydrazine) in the system.


Thus we have a plausible mechanism for our propulsion failures on the 8th and the 9th with the latch valves.  High temperatures expanding the seal material could have either impeded the flow, or have precluded the latch valve from opening even with the microswitch indicated to telemetry that the valve was open.  We also have high temperatures possibly evolving gas, causing a large gas bubble in the propellant lines Is this the case?  There is a way to test both cases.

Corrective Action

There is a pretty good possibility now that we have pressure and or fuel in the tanks but that it is not getting to the propellant lines and out the thrusters.  We are going to of course turn the +28 volts on this time!  We will also open both valves on one of the fuel systems, the primary and redundant.  We will also heat the tanks to see if we can see a rapid increase in temperature.  If we see a rapid rise, that would indicate no fuel in the tanks (testing for all eventualities).  There are several things we will do to test out and try propulsion to bleed all the gas out of the lines.

What we could see would be not much activity and then toward the end of the pulses from the thrusters we could see propellant flow, temperature increase, and thrust!

Cross your fingers.  We will have a pass on July 16th at Arecibo, so we will soon find out what the outcome is.

The Collective Consciousness of the InterNet

There was a great article on related to distributed engineering and our project, and how the people from the net came together to help us.  I first saw the term distributed engineering in the late 1980’s from the amateur radio community.  It began through using ham radio to do this, then it migrated to email before the advent of web browsers, and then to the web.  What happened with our call for help goes far beyond that as the distributed engineering meme begins with a pre organized group of people that collaborate in geographically disparate locations toward a common engineering goal.  Before our call for help last week, I knew maybe one or two of the experts that came in and helped us.  This goes well beyond distributed engineering to a collective consciousness.  I often characterize the internet as the global extension of my brain, with vast stores of knowledge that the brain organizes through the interface of the browser.

In the beginning of the net we used this to research information.  With the rise of the ubiquitous internet among the professional class and beyond in the world, we now have something never before seen on this scale in the history of mankind, a near instantaneous way to not only research information, but to rapidly organize humans to do “things”.  We now have crowd funded efforts that bring people together of like interests to fund interesting projects like ours.  We have crowdsourced collaboration in the arts, sciences, and engineering.  There is a lot of talk about singularities in the technology world, and for the most part they are marketing myths from my experience.  However, and this is what I leave the reader to ponder, we have reached a threshold where vast numbers of people can work together in a near real time manner to solve problems and do good and interesting (or evil) things.  One wonders where this will go….

For us it was great!

[1] Farquhar, R, Muhonen, D, Church, L; Trajectories and Orbital Maneuvers for the ISEE-3/ICE Comet Mission.  AIAA-84-1976, AIAA/AAS Astrodynamics Conference, Seattle, WA, August 20-22, 1984

[2] Curtis, M.S., Description and Performance of the International Sun Earth Explorer-3 Hydrazine Propulsion Subsystem, AIAA/SAE/ASME 15th Joint Propulsion Conference, Las Vegas, NV, June 18-20, 1979

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ISEE-3 Reboot Update, Ranging The Spacecraft


It has been a bit since my last update.  Tomorrow I hope to have a more thorough one for you all but this one here should be of interest, especially for the more technically inclined.  We had a pass from the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN) that was to be used to improve our knowledge of the position of ISEE-3 in space.  This is not an easy task, though NASA’s DSN team makes it look easy.   Every measurement, in on way or another, depends on accurately measuring the time it takes for a signal to either come from the spacecraft (passive mode), or a two way round trip signal, (ranging mode) or the most accurate means, called coherent ranging where the spacecraft locks to a signal from the ground, and matches its phase coherently.  The ISEE-3 spacecraft, even thought it is of a 1975 design vintage has this ability.  However, things did not go as planned last week.  Here is what I posted on our site and this was also sent to our NASA sponsors.


The DSN pass on June 18th that went from 1:45 to 2:45 Pacific Daylight time was not a success. Here is a recap of the pass activity.  The DSN pass started at 1:45 pm PDT.  Here is a graphic of the pass through a very nice DSN Now web app:

Figure 1: NASA DSN Now Web Interface Showing ISEE-3 (ICE) Pass Via DSS 24 Goldstone

Figure 1: NASA DSN Now Web Interface Showing ISEE-3 (ICE) Pass Via DSS 24 Goldstone

The pass began with a +/- 3 KHz sweep across frequencies representing the input frequency of transponder A (2090.66) MHz + the Doppler offset + an additional 11.25 KHz that came from our most recent command session. The additional offset is due to thermal and or aging issues with the spacecraft transponder. The sweep is done with a carrier only, no modulation, to get the receiver on the spacecraft to lock to the DSN transmitted signal. The output of transponder A will start to vary in a 240/221 relationship when the carrier is locked. Then ranging can occur. The sweep was unsuccessful in establishing a coherent lock. The sweep rate was 60 Hz/sec. This conforms to the procedure used in 1985 by the DSN for the spacecraft during the ICE comet encounter.[1]

A second sweep with a bandwidth of +/-6 KHz was initiated at the same sweep rate. This was also unsuccessful. It should have been successful as a total sweep of 12 KHz encompasses more than the offsets that we have successfully used to command the spacecraft. After this did not work, the DSN ops team then did a sweep at +/- 20 KHz with the center frequency set at our Doppler + 11.25 KHz offset. This surely should have worked in obtaining a lock, but it did not. Due to the time involved to do the sweep this exhausted our available time on the Goldstone dish, and thus we completed the pass without any indication of lock from the spacecraft.

Troubleshooting the Pass

Link Margin

The configuration of the Goldstone system was using the DSS-24 34 meter dish, running 10 kilowatts of power. Table 1 gives the estimated link margin:

Table 1: Estimated Link Margin for Ranging with Carrier at Goldstone for 6-19-14:

Table 1: Estimated Link Margin for Ranging with Carrier at Goldstone for 6-19-14:

Looking at the link margin, it is evident that the link was not the problem.

Failed Subsystem or Procedural Issue?

There are two possibilities for why the ranging failed, when we know for certain that transponder A is functional for commanding the spacecraft. The first is that the ranging function on the transponder has failed. The second is that a procedural error regarding commanding the communications system into coherent mode is at fault. Thus by eliminating the DSN link as an issue and looking at what could be the problem otherwise we have the beginning of a fault tree established for an investigation.

Failed Subsystem

The possibility that the ranging function has failed, or was not functional was taken into account by our team. The spacecraft has two transponders, A, and B, and both are capable of ranging. There are some issues with lower gain on transponder B’s antenna that make it less desirable but with the robust margin from Goldstone seen in figure 2 this is not a problem. On our 6-15-14 Arecibo pass we placed transponder B into coherent ranging mode as well as transponder A. However, due to time constraints the DSN did not have time to attempt ranging to the B transponder. Also, due to lack of licensing to transmit to the B transponder from Arecibo, we have been unable to verify the functionality of that receiver. Thus one possibility would be to range to transponder B for our next DSN pass on 06-25-14. However, this does not address the issue of what the problem might be for transponder A.

Our success with transponder A has not been 100% in sending commands to it. The receiver input frequency seems to be drifting toward a higher frequency over time. We do not know at this time whether that is a random drift or one that is predictable. We overcome that when we do our commanding by sweeping the expected frequency plus Doppler plus an offset when we send commands. Since our first commanding session the offset frequency has appeared to drift to higher frequencies each time. This is not completely unexpected as we found test data that indicated a positive curve for transponder A. If this were the issue the +/- 20 KHz sweep would have locked the receiver. While this does not verify that the ranging mode is not functional, it does narrow the possibilities.

Operational Procedure

With the incomplete documentation at our disposal it is not unlikely that we have issues in operational procedure that preclude the coherent function of transponder A from working. On top of this problem is the legal issue that we can’t just use transponder B because we have been unable to obtain a license to transmit on the frequencies for that system from Arecibo. We have no schematics or vendor documentation on the transponder. We do have test data and we know the specifications and requirements that it had to meet. Worst of all is that as far as we can determine from the digital subcom that provides verification of communications operation, it is not functional, through either the Data Handling Unit (DHU) A or the redundant DHU B. This is not that surprising in that the DHU’s have absorbed more than five times the radiation that they were designed to handle. The only way that we have to verify a function for the communications system is to command that function and then see if it works in the intended way.

We actually were able to verify that the coherent mode is working and to validate the operational issue. Figure 2 shows our Eureka moment for coherent ranging:

Figure 2: Post Doppler Correction Spectrum Trace During Commanding for Coherency

Figure 2: Post Doppler Correction Spectrum Trace During Commanding for Coherency

The above graphic, produced by Phil Perillat from Arecibo, shows that our command bits for coherency did go up and did push the transponder into coherent mode, shown by the 18 kHz frequency jump by the downlink.  There was a 1.6 second lag afterwards and we send the ranging command again, which stabilized the carrier at the offset frequency.  After the end of that command, which at 256 bits/sec took 2.4 seconds, and after an additional 1.6 seconds, the downlink shifts back to its base frequency.  This was our first solid indication, on June 15th that the ranging transponder coherent mode was working.

We had tried ranging through the transponder on the previous pass we had on June 9th.  We did not think that this had been successful but after looking at some of the analyses by Phil Perillat we noticed that the ranging mode had indeed worked on that day as well.  Figure 3 shows this:

Figure 3: Ranging Tone Spectrum With Frequency Offset, Transponder A

Figure 3: Ranging Tone Spectrum With Frequency Offset, Transponder A

In looking at this spectrum we were able to completely verify that the coherent ranging function with tone had worked.  The spectrum above shows this.  We verified this by looking at a document with test data on it from the spacecraft acceptance test.  This is shown in figure 4:


Figure 4: 20 KHz Ranging Tone In the Time Domain on Oscilloscope from 1978

Figure 4: 20 KHz Ranging Tone In the Time Domain on Oscilloscope from 1978

The difference between the signal in figure 3 and figure 4 is that the first is shown in the frequency domain, and the second in the time domain.  With the correlation between the acceptance test data in figure 4and the waterfall plot in figure 3 we pondered why the DSN pass did not work.

Even though we have incomplete information, we still have a lot.  In our discussion related to the issue we recalled that somewhere in a document it was stated that the spacecraft had to be commanded into coherent mode and that if the carrier dropped for more than three seconds it would automatically drop out of that mode.  After searching this document was found and here is what it said:

Figure 5: Documentary Evidence of Procedure for Coherent Mode Operation of Transponder A

Figure 5: Documentary Evidence of Procedure for Coherent Mode Operation of Transponder A

This provides verification of why we were able to get into coherent mode and the DSN was not able to also do so.

Final Verification of Procedural Issue

Friday June 20th we were going to do the propulsion system test and spin up maneuver.  However, one of our pass/fail criterion was real time telemetry and reliable commanding.  Neither of these criterion were met and thus we cancelled that activity early in the pass.  This gave the team time to focus on operationally testing transponder A’s receive system and to retest the coherent mode to determine whether or not we could command that action and record the results.  This we were able to do and figure 6 is our final evidence of Coherent mode operation:

Figure 6: Coherent Mode Operation Confirmed 6-22-14

Figure 6: Coherent Mode Operation Confirmed 6-22-14

What we were doing, as shown in the waterfall plot above, is that we were sending dummy commands to the spacecraft in order to get the command counter to increment.  This was a test of the command counter but we also send a coherent mode command.  The difference between figure 2 and figure 6 is that we changed our procedure slightly and sent commands one after another without allowing the carrier to drop, which maintained receiver lock on the spacecraft.  This can be seen in the shifting of the waterfall plot and at the end the three seconds of drift before the carrier snaps back to the baseline frequency.


  1. Coherent Mode Operation

Coherent mode is operating in a manner consistent with the original acceptance test report.

  1. DSN Failure to Go into Coherent Mode

The failure of the DSN frequency sweep to lock the spacecraft into coherent mode is due to the lack of a command to go into coherent mode before the sweep.  The sweep method must be coupled with a command for coherency for coherent mode to be entered.


The ISEE-3 team can provide to the DSN a packaged coherency command that can be broadcast to the spacecraft as the frequency sweep happens.  At this time our best estimate for frequency offset is Doppler +10-15 KHz.  This is due to aging of the transponder on the spacecraft.  After lock is achieved ranging tones should be sent without dropping the carrier.  Discussion with the DSN should be centered around how our command can be integrated with DSN operations.

[1] DSN_Operations_Plan_1985.pdf (page 5-8)

[2] 1978-02_compatibility_test_report_isee-c_flight_model (page 162)

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