In thinking about grand plans for the economic development of the solar system, it is easy to get caught up in the fact that you are thinking about building grand plans and so you get, grand. In many many conversations, papers, and even here, people who poke holes (and they are good to have by the way), like to poke at the fact that you are designing grand plans without the path to get there. I realize this but I have always not wanted to talk too much about the near term steps as they are too close to being a business plan for what I want to do. However, it seems that what we need is to get the ideas out there and look for those who believe in what we are attempting and support it financially. So, instead of talking about the grand plan, lets begin at the beginning.
I am doing it this way because so many times we get bogged down in the development of the grand plan and people get confused and there is legitimate criticism that has to be answered regarding elements of the grand plan, so, starting at the beginning, walking through the steps, gives everyone an idea of how we can get there from today without any big miracles and without so many of the things that some think that we absolutely must have. There is also a revolution brewing in terrestrial technology that is going to make reaching the two goals above much much easier to reach as well.
In the EE world when you do a new design, you think up what your design should be and then see how many of the parts that you need are off the shelf, existing, and inexpensive. The more the better and the cheaper your product the better for competition and market creation. After exhausting the easy stuff you see what you have to do that is unique to your design that you have to design/build in order to make the whole work. If the iPad had cost $5,000 rather than a few hundred, it would not have broken the new ground in market creation that it did. Steve Jobs had the vision of something like the pad a long time ago with the Newton but the technology and the infrastructure was not there. Now that it is, the iPad is a huge success. We need to bring the EE and Silicon valley thought process into the space world and these steps we will mirror in developing the ideas for reaching the big goals.
First is the design. It does not have to be specified to the detail, just the goal. The goal for the iPad was probably no more than a few bullet points. For a bridge or interstate the first goals, or in NASA speak, the level 0 requirements need to be stated. This is the easy part.
First Goals for The Economic Development of the Solar System.
1. A self sustaining (as opposed to self sufficient) lunar industrial outpost that creates more value in dollars returned to the investor over time than the cost of the enterprise.
2. A transportation infrastructure that allows for ubiquitous transportation of humans and cargo anywhere in cislunar space (defined as any altitude above the earth less than 500,000 kilometers)
These are stupendous goals or requirements that make us want to start talking grand plans again, but lets begin with the next step of the silicon valley world when designing a new product, what is out there that I can use today to get my design accomplished?
First there are rockets. There is the PSLV from India, the Long March in China, the Proton, Soyuz, Dnepr from Russia, the Ariane V from Europe, the H2A from Japan, the Atlas, Delta, Taurus I/II, the Minataur from the U.S, and the Zenit and Falcon 1E/9 from quasi commercial providers. A pretty good stable of rockets with capabilities between 1 and 25 metric tons to orbit. A couple of these are off limits in the west but the rest are readily available in prices around $2000-5000 dollar/kg to orbit.
Then there is the International Space Station. It has six crewpersons, with only two required to keep the station operational. It has the Russian modules, it has the U.S. Destiny lab along with the Columbus from Europe and Kibo from Japan. These are amazing facilities that are dramatically underutilized. It is in a 51.6 degree orbit that is considered by some hole pokers as bad, except that it is there, the mass penalty for getting there rather than the lower Florida 28.5 degrees is 6.5% of the payload. Did I mention that it was there, in orbit today, whereas the mythical better one at 28.5 degrees is yet to exist. I hope that Bigelow changes that but if I am designing something today, I have to look at what is available today, that station is not there yet. I can and do acknowledge that it is coming and that it will have a positive effect on lowering the cost of human presence in space for everyone.
There are also the vehicles such as the European ATV, the Russian Progress, the Russian Soyuz, the Proton for heavy payloads to the station as well. There is also the Japanese HTV that is flying now. In the near future we hope that both the Dragon and the Orbital Sciences CRS vehicle (Orbital you HAVE to change that lame name) carrying payloads to the station. Eventually NASA will have a new vehicle going to the station but it is an even bet that Musk with the Dragon, Boeing with the CTV, or Lockheed with a commercial version of Orion will make it to the station with people first. That is a good thing for all of us. This makes several vehicles that are currently flying or will fly in the near term for the station. Together these vehicles are an amazing resource for flying payloads to the ISS.
We also have a large ground infrastructure. We can buy communications from Priordia net or Universal Space Network. We can buy some components from the existing U.S. aerospace industrial base but they are generally incredibly expensive, though some of it is for good reason. Elon Musk is showing that it takes a vertically integrated operation to cut the costs of a large system. This is what the large aerospace companies did decades ago but they are for the most part assembly houses now and this has led to unnecessary cost increases due to the way that government contracting works with multiple levels of overhead and G&A tacked on, like a VAT tax on aerospace contracts.
Building a vertically integrated operation is probably the first difficult thing to be done in the process, build a technical team that has a wide ranging technical talent, along with the latest productivity enhancements that the computer age brings to the table. There are a lot of really smart people out there in the U.S. aerospace and NASA worlds who want to do things the right way, getting them together into a team is the most important thing that is the foundation of everything else that is done. Instead of large teams of process dependent cogs, you have to have a small, very smart, very well paid group of top tier engineers. Couple them with young new blood from college that can be mentored in real time and who can do the late night work. As much as money, more than anything else, is the importance of the organization and composition of the engineering team.
Other resources such as the far better CAD/CAM of today, 3D printing, and other simulation software helps to dramatically increase productivity are very important as well and the people that know how to run the equipment to its best potential.
There is a large body of literature, scientific papers, and the work done by others to build upon as well, and all of these are important as we have to understand what people have built before so that we can take that knowledge and leverage it in our own work. These are the assets that we have available today to help build aerospace systems and these provide the basis for doing designs.
That comes next.