Space Abhors a Policy Vacuum; The NRC Report and The Need for a Broad National Space Policy

NOTE:  This is Part one of a two part post….

In December of 2012 the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on NASA’s Strategic Direction, in response to a congressional mandate, conducted a study and published a report entitled; NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus. The mandate for their deliberations and report was as follows:

…..Notably, the committee was not asked to deliberate on what should be NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy; rather, it was asked for recommendations on how these goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated…..

The question put before the committee was not what NASA should be doing but rather how NASA’s goals, objectives, and strategy might be established, presumably in a manner that will gain the support of stakeholders, including the public.

Vignettes from the Study…

The committee began by referencing the enabling law for NASA for guidance on what the agency’s role is in government.  Their evaluation was;

For the United States to be a leader in space, as required by the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act, it must be a country with bold ideas, science and engineering excellence, and the ability to convince others to work with it in the pursuit of common goals. Leadership depends on the perception of others that whoever is in the lead knows the way forward, is capable of forging the trail, and is determined to succeed despite inevitable setbacks…..

So NASA is supposed to be a (as opposed to the) leader in space.  However, NASA’s role is not to develop the strategic direction itself as it is a federal executive agency, it is the United States (presumed by the NRC committee to be the government) that must come up with the bold ideas, science, and engineering excellence and then convince others of this and lead into the future.

The strongest statement of the committee is that the government has not come up with a strategic plan that provides this leadership or that has the support needed to be successful. Their first conclusion and recommendation is;

Conclusion: There is no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA. Absent such a consensus, NASA cannot reasonably be expected to develop enduring strategic priorities for the purpose of resource allocation and planning.

Recommendation: The administration should take the lead in forging a new consensus on NASA’s future that is stated in terms of a set of clearly defined strategic goals and objectives. This process should apply both within the administration and between the administration and Congress and should be reached only after meaningful technical consultations with potential international partners. The strategic goals and objectives should be ambitious, yet technically rational, and should focus on the long term.

So there is no consensus on our strategic direction and objectives for NASA and thus the agency will continue as it has for a while now, muddling along with the various stovepiped interests within the agency continuing to fight for their individual agendas.  The recommendation is that the administration and congress should work together to develop one a strategic plan but in the hyper-partisan atmosphere of the current relationship between the branches of government this will be difficult.

This is obviously a recipe for continuing floundering because as the report also observes, NASA does not have the money (as the Augustine report also noted) to do what several presidents and NASA have said is the most important goal (not strategy, goal) for the agency which is the human exploration of Mars.  So the question becomes, is there a means whereby a consensus can be developed that comes from the outside of the government but is adopted by the government?

Where the NRC report Went Wrong

Referring back to the mandate of the NRC committee, its mandate was to establish how this national consensus and strategy might be established and communicated.  In their recommendation that a space policy be developed there is a continuing flaw in the philosophical underpinning that equates space with NASA and the development of a strategic direction as sole the province of the government as it relates to the civilian space agency.  Here is what the report says in this area….

…….If the United States is to continue to maintain international leadership in space, it must have a steady, bold, scientifically justifiable space program in which other countries want to participate, and, moreover, it must behave as a reliable partner.

The above sentence in its implication says that a scientifically justifiable space program is the only means to continue its international leadership in space.  This has been the underpinning of all NASA related strategic thinking for the past thirty years but is it still tenable, is it still complete to say so?  It is my opinion that the answer is no and indeed it has never truly been the case and to think of space through this narrow lens is actually the reason that we have been unable to come to any kind of national consensus on space.  The key word in their mandate is national consensus, not just a presidential fiat or even a consensus between the congress and the president.  If we are to move forward toward a national consensus we must look beyond the scientific justifications for a space program and look at the broader aspects of national interest to underpin our reasoning.

Toward a Spacepower Theory of the Space Economy

In the years 2005-2008 I was associated with a research and writing effort carried out by the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University (NDU).  The result of this effort was a multivolume book called Toward a Theory of Spacepower. The book was a set of carefully selected essays on the subject of spacepower theory, which is the theory of how the environment of space is a realm for the actions of nations  and non national actors toward furthering their own interests.  The book was commissioned by the Secretary of Defense and is constructed taxonomically in the same vein as Clauswitz’s Landpower theory, and particularly in the vein of Mahan’s seminal book on Seapower theory called The Influence of Seapower on History 1660-1783.

This was a fascinating effort and I learned much about how people outside of NASA think about the subject of space.  Its about worldview and whenever the word “NASA” is used a certain worldview is imposed that then further defines all discussion on space.  However, if you impose the worldview of power theory and then look at space, something vastly different emerges, something that could be useful in developing a national consensus regarding space.  The reason that this can provide a firmer foundation is that the military theoretician, especially those that take the viewpoint derived from Mahan that actions of states (and private economic interests) to proactively operate in and protect their interests at sea (in our example space) helps to build the economy of the nation, which then increases the wealth of the people and thus builds a firmer foundation for the state itself.

The first essay in the “Toward a Theory of Spacepower” by Jon Sumida goes to the heart of building a workable premise for a national discussion on space policy. This premise formulated on the basis of a Mahanian political-economic outlook, which is far beyond simply building a strategic plan for a federal agency like NASA and helps to reformulate Mahan’s seapower theory questions into the space realm.

In his essay, Sumida reformulated the Mahanian seapower questions and concerns into their space analog as follows:

•  What is the economic significance of the development of space activity, and to what degree does future American economic performance depend upon it?

• What are the security requirements of space-based economic activity?

• What role should the U.S. Government play in the promotion of space-based economic       activity and its defense?

• What kind of diplomatic action will be required to support space-based economic activity and its defense?

I would posit that the mandate of the NRC study of  how the [national] goals, objectives, and strategy might best be established and communicated…..  is best addressed by answering the questions formulated by Sumida and not by an a-priori statement that a scientifically justifiable space program is the basis for the administration and congress to deliberate our future in space.

Brevity a posting in this type of format precludes going into these questions in this missive, but the follow on posting this will go into Sumida’s questions, using my own chapter in Toward a Spacepower Theory as the basis for my argument.

(you can read ahead if you want as the link to the spacepower theory book of essays is linked above).

How would you the reader answer these questions?

Part II, Broadening the Scope of a National Space Policy///

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Skycorp—Out of the Closet

Who Me, Start a Company?

I usually keep my personal and professional lives separate but today is special.  I founded my company, Skycorp Incorporated in March of 1998.  I got the idea from Alan Steele’s book “Orbital Decay” and its successors.  Good science fiction, very realistic and very human.   In the book there is a company called Skycorp, based in Huntsville Alabama that was building a solar power satellite and a lot of other (if you read the rest of the books in the series) large space projects up to and including an O’Neil colony.  My thought was that this is the kind of company that I want to build and it was the crystalizing of my space interests that go all the way back to my early childhood and the Gemini and Apollo programs.  However, the reality of building a space company that can do those kinds of things is considerably different than my understanding and vision of the time.

The truth is that when I was a kid, even looking at the space race, I never dreamed about running a company.  I figured I would be a physicist working for NASA or some big company.  My friends kidded me and called me Spock (it was that era).  Where we are from in Alabama you go to school, grow up and then go to work.  Some go to college and then go to work.  A few start a small business and go to work and work more than if you are working for someone else.  We never had entrepreneurial role models.  Our family either went into the military, or worked at a company.  I didn’t find out until I was well into my 30′s that my great grandfather and grandfather were railroad engineers!

When I was in my 20′s a friend of mine in California and I started a company selling computers but quit doing it because business was booming and it was interfering with our skiing time.  It was a business model very similar to Dell’s.  During the 80′s I was a non degreed engineer in the California computer industry, which at that time was a meritocracy where the good were promoted.  We had a marvelous time but I wanted to do space.  When I applied for jobs in Aerospace (Rockwell, Boeing, Lockheed), I was either told that I could not do any design work without a degree (Boeing, Rockwell), or the job screening process (to work on Hubble as a test engineer) took so long that I turned the job down.  I turned it down partially because I was already in school.  Even though in the computer industry I had responsibility for entire technical departments, production lines, or large technical projects, I did understand that if I wanted to do space, it would take a degree.

The Plunge….

So, in 1987 I left the good jobs in the computer industry, moved back to Alabama, and went to school at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).  I am forever glad that I  lucked out and went to UAH because at the time there was still an amazing cast of characters that were still around from the Apollo era.  I was such a space nut that I had to get an apartment within sight of the Saturn 1 at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center.  It was my inspiration and I used to spend a lot of time over there looking at the hardware.  At UAH many of the professors were from the Apollo era and some were the German rocket scientists that had left NASA and were into their third careers.

Since I had contacts in the L5 society (soon to become the NSS, merging with the Von Braun inspired National Space Institute, I was able to meet several of these people.  One that probably inspired me the most was Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, one of the fathers of American ion propulsion efforts.  He was at Teledyne Brown engineering working on drop towers for microgravity and was kind enough to take time to answer all of my questions about space and he schooled me on the value of ion propulsion to spaceflight.  I also met Konrad Dannenberg, Dr. Von Tiesenhausen, and many others.  I even met General Bruce Medaris (father Medaris, then an Anglican Bishop), Von Braun’s boss in the Army.  I also met and became friends with amazing people like Gordon Woodcock, Dr. Charles Lundquist, Dave Christensen, Dr. S.T. Wu and Dr. John Gilbert from UAH, and many others who build the hardware that took us to the Moon and beyond.  Here is a picture of Dr. Lundquist lecturing Von Braun and Oberth on orbital mechanics!

Lundquist_vonBraun_oberthFigure 1: Lundquist Lecturing Von Braun and Oberth on Orbital Mechanics

The point is that I had an amazing group of mentors there in Huntsville that helped me look beyond the horizons that I had before.

I was able to get extremely low paying student jobs at UAH doing real hardware and science.  With my background in the computer industry and in the university environment I was able to do stuff that otherwise I would have had to have had a degree to do!  While this sidetracked my degree, making it take almost twice as long as it should have, I was able to work on a very wide range of hardware.  I built microgravity measuring systems for the Black Brant sounding rocket (CONSORT 1-6) and on an ill fated sounding rocket mission (JOUST-1).  I have my own ballistically implanted reef!.  I and my team that we started building of students at UAH did a lot of other projects as well.  This was all through Dr. Lundquist’s Consortium for Materials Development in Space (CMDS) and through Dr. S.T. Wu’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR)

In 1989 I was one of the early founders of the Lunar Prospector project, which later flew in the 1990′s.  We started our own small satellite project at the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDSAT-1).  We raised $6.5 million dollars in cash and in kind donations and it flew in October of 1998 as a secondary payload on the Deep Space 1 mission.  I flew the first MacIntosh as an experiment controller on the Shuttle on STS 46 in the Cargo bay and on STS 57, 60, and 63 in the SpaceHab module.  All in all a heck of a lot of flight experience.

Starting a Space Company

It was only after I was working at UAH and had worked on a lot of space projects that I realized that I probably did not want to work at Boeing or any other large aerospace company or NASA for that matter.  I worked with too many guys at MSFC who were great engineers but my student spacecraft was the first flight hardware that they had ever been involved with.  I also saw the politics and how a great space center (MSFC) was being systematically dismantled from Washington by leadership that had no idea what they were destroying.  We are still reaping the ill fruits of those decisions.

So, at about the time of my graduation with an engineering physics degree and a lot of flight hardware, I founded Skycorp.  I still had no idea what I was getting into…. Rather than go into a lot of gory details, I introduce to you, my reader, my company website…

skycorplogofin

http://www.skycorpinc.com/Skycorp/Home.html

I ask you to peruse the site and see what we have accomplished over what is now 14 years.  As this post is getting long I will leave you with my website.  I will do a separate post on my lessons learned in developing a space company.  If you look on my site you will see a lot of projects and the lessons learned in the pursuit of those projects is what I want to discuss next……..

For almost 15 years I did not do a Skycorp website.  I never found anyone to give it the look and feel that I wanted.  The exception is my favorite space artist Mark Maxwell, but I have always been so involved that I never took the time that it would take for he and I to do it as I would have had to have written all the text anyway.

Some of these projects people who know me, know about.  Some of them you don’t.  Some of them are still emerging and will go live soon.  It is beyond time for Skycorp to come out of the closet so to speak and after spending the time to develop this site, which will continue to develop, we are proud of the things we have done and look forward to the things that we will do!

Please let me know what you think……

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Reclaiming Our Future in Space….

Image

The Path of History

The above quotation was from an article critical of the space program in life magazine from August 15, 1969, barely two weeks after the return of the Apollo 11 from its historic journey.  It illustrates in a concise nutshell the disconnect between the goals of NASA and the perception of the value of space to American public in the late 1960′s.  How did this happen?  This disconnect has never truly been overcome and it must, because the money that was spent on the space program then, and since, has been the downpayment on the future of mankind.  How different these visions are!

Anyone today who understands the history of the period understands that money was not taken away from children and shot to the Moon.  Mrs. Reynolds, featured in Life magazine, could not understand why we were spending money on the Moon.  As those of us who know the media understand, the journalist of the day was using her statement as an illustration of an attitude that was becoming widespread at the time, which was that the government had lost touch with the people and that money was being spent on things of no concern to our lives.

The 1950′s

This shift in the perception of government was profound as it was rapid.  In 1960, the last full year of the Eisenhower administration, trust in government was probably at an all time high.  The former five star general and commander in chief of allied forces in WWII had successfully steered the United States through a very tough era in global politics and who actually ended one war (Korea) and kept us out of another one (Vietnam).  This while at the same time leading a revolution in the ability of the United States to wage war by investing heavily in advancing technology in aircraft, warships, nuclear power and space assets for reconnaissance.  At the end of the 1950′s defense expenditures were fully 50% of the federal budget, yet not one American had died in combat since the end of the Korean conflict seven years earlier.  All of this swiftly changed with the Camelot presidency and the era of LBJ.

The 1960′s

After the Sputnik moment of October 1957 space expenditures jumped for the military and the new civilian agency NASA. The 1960′s saw an even greater explosion of government activism in R&D as well as social programs.  Huge sums of money were spent not only on NASA but on military space development as well.  Few people know today that the development of the Thor (Delta), Atlas, and Titan and the satellites that flew on them for reconnaissance and communications cost the same order of magnitude as the Apollo Moon landing.  Eisenhower remarked on these expenditures in his farewell address and so did General Bruce Medaris (Von Braun’s Army boss).  This is while at the same time the expenditures for the Vietnam war were escalating rapidly

In 1957 federal spending on science, space, and technology totaled $122 million dollars. Nine years later FY 1966 spending in the same category was $6.717 billion dollars, a number that was not equaled until the Reagan administration in 1982.  As a comparison, Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services (ETESS) spent $479 million in 1957 and by FY 1966 this total had increased to $4.363 billion.  Most interesting, only four fiscal years later (FY-1970) the General Science, Space, and Technology budget had dropped to $4.511 billion mostly due to the Apollo draw down and the ETESS budget had increased to $8.634 billion dollars, almost double the budget that included NASA as well as all other federal science spending.  Other budgetary line items went up by similar amounts during this period while NASA and science declined. (source: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/Historicals).

The rational that was given was that the budget was in a deficit and that we had to make sacrifices.  When NASA Director James Webb tried to get LBJ to reverse the direction of the cuts in the FY-1968 budget the reply was:

Under other circumstances, I would have opposed such a cut, [but] the times demand responsibility from us all.

I recognize–as also must congress–that the reduction in funds recommended by the House Appropriations Committee will require the deferral and reduction of some desirable space projects.  Yet in the face of present circumstances, I join with the Congress and accept this reduction. (Source: Defining NASA: The Historical Battle Over the Agency’s Mission)

This shift is understandable though if you consider it within the context of Mrs. Reynolds statement.  It wasn’t just her as the turmoil of the 1960′s, the racial problems, the Vietnam war, the problems with urban decay as it was called, all factored into a huge shift in priorities for the government.

2010′s

With the budget numbers in hand today it is quite simply that LBJ lied to Webb and NASA.  It was not an issue over the budget, it was an issue of priorities.  Here we are 46 years later and what do we have?  The same budget line for General Science, Space, and Technology this fiscal year has a budget of $30.991 billion dollars.  This is NASA, plus NSF, plus other general science and technology spending.  The comparative budget for the same ETESS segment in FY-12 is $139.212 billion dollars.   Again, it is not an issue of money, it is an issue of priorities.

The budget has been used time and time again as a means to bludgeon NASA into accepting lower budgets under the guise of deficit reduction.  However, as can clearly be seen in the budget data, the deficit has almost never decreased as a result of the cuts and the real issue is the allocation of national resources.  I would argue here that it is that allocation itself that is the problem.  Is our educational system improved over what it was in 1966?  Are our social services better?  Is employment training better?  Think about this, what if the budgets were reversed and during that entire time from FY-1967 until today, how would our nation and our world be different?

Historical Turning Point and an Alternate History

What if NASA’s budget and the General S&T budget followed the trajectory of the ETESS budget?  Here are a few charts from Von Braun and Webb’s FY 1966 budget hearings with  the Appropriations Committee of the House.

Screen Shot 2013-01-07 at 4.53.15 PM

Figure 1: Payload Performance Increase for the NERVA Nuclear Stage on the Saturn V

Screen Shot 2013-01-02 at 5.11.23 PMFigure 2: Mission Capabilities Increase from the Use of the NERVA Nuclear Stage

Clustered ReactorsFigure 3: NASA Clustered Space Nuclear Reactor Experiment (1964)

Clustered Nuke Stages

Figure 4: Artist Depiction of a Clustered Nuclear Stage in Orbit Around the Moon

Take a good look at figures 1-4.  These were not just charts that the guys in Preliminary Design at MSFC cooked up to sell a program, these were projects in progress when these presentations were made to Congress in March of 1965 for the FY-1966 budget, the last budget where NASA got what it wanted. (Source: NASA Authorization for Fiscal Year 1966; Hearings Before the Committee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences, United States Senate, Bill S. 927)

ApolloALSSLESA lem5 lem6 lem7 lem9 lem10 lem12Figure 5-11: AAP Graphics for Extended use of Apollo Hardware

These are all graphics, drawings, and designs that I have dug up during the course of my extended research on the subject of the 1960′s space program.  It is an absolute falsehood that NASA had no plans for space.  The problem was never the ideas or the follow through, it was the money and the reallocation of the Apollo program money to fund domestic social programs.

I leave the reader with one thought and question.  In the last almost half century and tens of trillions of dollars in social spending, are we better off than we would have been had we instead allocated just the ETESS money to space?  Today we would have the beginnings of a civilization on Mars, we would have lunar industrialization, we would have ubiquitous operational capabilities for humans anywhere in the inner solar system.

Think of that…..

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Nuclear Power to the People–On the Moon

To Nuke or Not to Nuke the Moon, That is the Multi-Billion Dollar Question

Energy is the lifeblood of civilization.  This is true on Earth as well as for of our outward move into the solar system.  Wherever we go, our actions and our level of success will be dictated by how much energy we have and are able to productively use.  You cannot have an industrial civilization without plentiful energy.  This is true whether this civilization is on the Earth, Moon, or beyond.  With plentiful energy, the stars are at our doorstep.

In the past 20 years of my looking at, reviewing, and analyzing lunar and beyond exploration architectures, my own interests have shied away from nuclear power as part of any architecture as it immediately drives up the price to unaffordable levels and puts a major critical path milestone in the way of success.  Solar power is great for low power outposts and can be implemented without a lot of development time and expense.  However, as we have moved forward in time, there have been a lot of developments in small nuclear power systems that bear examination.  The idea is to trade the value of a low power system powered by solar energy against a high power system powered by a nuclear reactor.

Low Power Industrial Outposts (Solar)

The question becomes, can a low power (solar) lunar infrastructure be built that enables industrialization.  First we have to define what low power means.  Practically, it means between 500 kilowatts to one megawatt of power.  The reason is simple.  We can get about 100 kilowatts per Delta IVH launch to the Moon using “traditional” methods.  We can probably get about 300 kilowatts per launch to the Moon using a solar electric transportation stage and a Delta IVH launch plus the launch to put the SEP up in the first place.  Doing a bit of arm waving the cost for either path will be about $2 billion for five hundred kilowatts and probably about $3 billion using a SEP for a megawatt and about $3.5 billion for a conventional approach.

The question becomes, is 500kw to a megawatt of electrical power sufficient to reach sustainability of a lunar (or anywhere else) industrial outpost.  The answer depends on exactly where the facility is located and the richness of the resources (metals and volatiles) that are in the near vicinity of the location.  Lets say for the sake of argument that you go to the ideal location, which to me is along the rim of Whipple crater, which itself is on the rim of Peary crater at the lunar north pole.

With a megawatt of power you get a lot for your money.  You can do some serious ISRU of propellants, separating water from the regolith by heating it with solar thermal power (not in the megawatt power budget).  You can then use electrolysis to separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen that can then be used to fuel single stage to orbit cargo and human carriers.  Additionally, you can use the hydrogen and oxygen in closed loop fuel cell vehicles and heavy equipment to do your mining, road building, and other activities.  However, even at the tip of the rim of Whipple crater, the sun does not shine all month, all year around.  There would be periods when you have to power down to a caretaker level.  This does not necessarily have to be bad as it could be the down time needed for maintenance, repair, and roll out of new capabilities.

Over several years some of the power could be used to manufacture solar panels.  Indeed this would be one of the most profitable things to do as if a megawatt is the tipping point of sustainability, then more power, developed locally, creates a lot of leverage.  There is nothing intrinsically impossible about doing this, you just have to send up the right equipment to do so, and then harvest purified silicon from the lunar regolith.  Dr. Alex Ignatiev has a great paper on the subject and has done a lot of work in this area.

Silicon is plentiful on the Moon but it takes a lot of energy to extract it, meaning that as resources are dedicated to this task, fewer resources are available for other activities.  ISRU of metal oxides would be the other major consumer of energy on the Moon and thus the productivity of the outpost is directly proportional to the amount of energy you have and how efficiently you use it.  Adding solar thermal power is straightforward and can be done largely with local resources, providing a multiplier effect for manufacturing.

This path is entirely doable, but is it the best use of financial resources?

Nuclear Power on the Moon

In earlier iterations of lunar architecture studies, such as in the late 1980′s Space Exploration Initiative (SEI), nuclear power was one of the core systems for power at an outpost/base.  This was principally because all of the base ideas that were part of the mainstream were not in the lunar polar regions.  At the time we knew far less about the Moon and its resources than we do now, so this made sense.  The guiding architecture came from a report, called the “Report of the 90 Day Study on Human Exploration of the Moon and Mars“.   This was a very forward looking report at the time that basically had the kitchen sink of technologies, missions, and hardware for exploration built into it.  As one example of how forward looking it was, look on page 3-32 (the link to the document is in the title above) and look at the “Long Range Mars Rover”.  Here it is reproduced as figure 1:

Nuclear Powered Long Range Mars Rover From the SEI Era

Unless you have been living under a rock, you can see that the design of this 1989 Mars rover has a lot of similarity to the Curiosity lander that landed on Mars in August of 2012.  Another advanced feature was a passive nuclear reactor.  This reactor is shown in figure 2:

SEI Era NASA SPT-100, 100 Kilowatt Reactor

In looking at the SPT-100 reactor in the SEI 90 study I am struck by how underpowered the entire outpost would have been.  They were very ambitious in what they wanted to do but 100 kilowatts of nuclear or solar power (there is a solar variant in the study as well), is simply not enough to do a lot of ISRU, exploration and science.  In fairness the ISRU plant was of very modest capabilities and would have been used to make up gasses for the outpost and other non propellant uses.

In the 23 years since the SEI report nuclear technology has advanced fairly rapidly.  Most of it is still in the demonstration or research stage but there are several small nuclear reactors that are on the way to operational status.

Here is the money question….

What could you do on the Moon if you had a 25 megawatt reactor (electrical) and 70 megawatts (thermal) energy.  It changes everything….

Modern Small Nuclear Reactors

There is a pretty good body of information available on the web to inform people about small nuclear power systems.  A very good round up of this information is provided at the   World Nuclear Organization web site.  There are some interesting common attributes of these small nuclear reactors that make them interesting for the Moon.

  1. Small Physical Size
  2. Modular Construction
  3. Unattended or Reduced Manpower Operation.
  4. Self Contained
  5. Low Proliferation Potential
  6. Ease of Disposal
  7. Lots of Power

Rather than go through all of them I selected the one that I thought was a very good representative of the group.  It is by far the smallest in power with only 25 megawatts of electrical output and 70 kilowatts of thermal output but in comparison with what we have been talking about for the Moon up until now it is an amazing advance!

GEN4 Energy Molton Salt Fast Reactor

The GEN4 reactor is an amazing advance over earlier generation small reactors.  Figure 3 shows a conceptual drawing of the reactor system:

The GEN4 25 Megawatt (Electrical) and 70 Megawatt (Thermal) Reactor

Here are the key features of this reactor:

  • Advanced reactor design – Use of advanced reactor concepts provides for a safer and simpler reactor, elimination of many potential accident scenarios that affect LWRs, and elimination of complex reactor systems.
  • Small reactor – A smaller reactor is more appropriately sized for smaller generation requirements, can directly replace existing diesel fueled generators, and requires no upgrade to existing small electricity distribution systems.
  • 10-year power module replacement – The Gen4 Module provides 25 MWe continuously for 10 years on its initial fuel load (compared to an 18 to 24 month cycle for current light water reactors).  No on-site refueling is required.  After 10 years the entire reactor module is replaced.
  • Underground containment vault – The reactor is sited in an underground containment vault to provide isolation from the environment, prevent intrusion or tampering, and avoid harm from natural disasters.
  • Factory-assembled transportable power modules – Factory assembly allows for standard designs, superior quality control, and faster construction and on-site deployment.

All of these features make this reactor amenable for lofting to the Moon for installation.  How much would it cost?  Even if it took ten launches of a Delta IVH or 6 launches of a Falcon 9 heavy, it would be well worth it.  The provision of 25 megawatts of electrical energy and 70 megawatts of thermal energy would transform the proposition of lunar industrialization.

Applications for Massive Power

Gone would be the requirement to engineer every last part of a low power system for optimum efficiency.  This would save quite a bit of money.  The ability to use high power ISRU systems such as vacuum induction melting of metal becomes a no brainer.  With high power ISRU and plentiful metal, structures with large interior volumes becomes very feasible.  Large interior volumes would allow for plentiful living space for humans and operational space for ground systems.  There would be plentiful electrical power and space for growing food, including meat animals.

The thermal energy could be used for the steam reformation of water into hydrogen and oxygen, and do it at an industrial scale, providing fuel for ground based fuel cell vehicles as well as fuel for lunar Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) cargo transports.  The thermal energy could also be used to drive of the volatiles in the mining of water from the permanently dark areas.  Hot phase change material could also be easily used to keep equipment warm during their sojourns in the dark areas, removing the need for mobile nuclear power systems.

In short, as here on the Earth, power is everything to a civilization and we should very much consider and study, and develop the means whereby to loft these high power systems to the Moon.  It would not be immediately, and for the very near term solar power systems would be used to bootstrap any ground operations on the Moon.  However, the leverage and advantage of these high power, modular, and safe nuclear systems must become central to the industrialization of the Moon.  It would transform the development of Mars as well and would enable the almost immediate colonization of the red planet.

We now have the technology and the tools that we need to open the solar system to development.  We stand at the door.  It would be a hell of a lot better use of money than refilling the corrupt coffers of Wall Street or Brussels.  Indeed it would moot that as the wealth that would come from such development would of itself refill those coffers, and in a far more productive manner….

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An Open Letter to the National Research Council’s Committee on the Strategic Direction of NASA

Tonight I went to the web page for the National Research Council’s committee on the strategic direction of NASA. Here is the website, I invite everyone to go there and voice your own opinion.

http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DEPS/ASEB/DEPS_067029?ssSourceSiteId=SSB

I am annoyed at some of the questions, such as the question regarding humans/vs robots. This is a silly question for such an organization such as this to ask and misses the entire point about what strategic direction means. Another question asked about the strategic direction statement itself. The NASA strategic direction, vision and mission statements aren’t bad. That is not the point. The point is that the implementation of those high sounding words is atrocious. Anyway, I copied all the questions and my answers, and these are now open for your comments as well!! Maybe this public forum will help provide better information than the limited format that they used.

NASA’s Vision, Mission and Strategic Direction.
What is your understanding and opinion of NASA’s current vision, mission and strategic direction? If you think NASA’s vision, mission and strategic direction should different from the above, please state what they should be and why.

The vision and mission statement of NASA in their 2011 strategic plan are largely decoupled from the way that the strategic goal, especially #1 is implemented. 1.3 states:

“Develop an integrated architecture and capabilities for safe crewed and cargo missions beyond low Earth orbit.”

Currently, none of the BEO exploration architectures integrates ISS into its plan. It is merely assumed that ISS will not be around due to the long development period of the SLS HLV booster. The SLS booster, its cost, and long gestation is the flaw in the implementation of the Strategic direction. An alternate architecture integrating existing vehicles, advanced technology, and living off the land negates the need for the SLS.
The implementation plan that undergirds the utilization of an SLS heavy lift vehicle assumes that all payloads for human BEO missions will be lofted from the Earth. None of the design reference missions incorporate InSitu Resource Utilization (ISRU) in any serious manner. The reasons given are that ISRU is at a low Technical Readiness Level (TRL), yet there are no significant programs in NASA beyond Jerry Sanders modest efforts, in NASA’s strategic technology portfolio.

Without ISRU, no BEO exploration strategy is sustainable. At no time in human history has any exploration or colonization succeeded when reliant on supplies from home. NASA’s LRO, Mars, and other planetary missions indicate that our solar system is rich with resources, including fuels and metals, that would support a “living off the land” strategy.

The SLS centric architecture ignores ISS and wastes NASA’s flagship human spaceflight program. Its expense and long gestation time, renders human BEO exploration so far into the future as to be of little value to our society. It is recommended that the strategic plan be amended to incorporate “living off the land” as a central theme for sustainable human BEO exploration.

Budget
In your opinion, should NASA’s annual budget (currently about $18 billion) be substantially increased, be substantially decreased, or remain at about the current level – and why? [In responding to this question, assume that an increase in NASA's budget would require reduction(s) elsewhere in the federal budget and, conversely, that a decrease in NASA's budget would enable increased funding elsewhere in the federal budget.]

NASA’s budget is less important than the strategic direction and national priority. Today billions of dollars per year are wasted on a heavy lift vehicle with no funding for payloads and is not expected to be operational for another ten years. Reallocating this funding to advanced technology, in space systems, and more commercial integration would provide vastly more value to the American taxpayer.

As far as the budget goes, the budget is always given as the reason that we cannot do more in space. In this same amount of time, especially in the last several years the lie of this proposition has been made abundantly clear. Our nation has spent trillions of dollars on the financial system bail out, almost a trillion dollars in stimulus spending and barely a budge on the NASA budget. From 2001 to 2008 the budget of the education department increased more than twice NASA’s entire budget. Money is not the problem, the problem is priority.

NASA’s priority as integrated into national priorities, has been sorely shortchanged. Organizations such as the National Academies of Science and other like organizations have dominated the discussion regarding the strategic direction of NASA and hence NASA becomes yet another government science project. It has been observed that on this committee there is only one person with a robust business background. Additionally, there is no advocate for the economic development of the solar system and its strategic value to the nation. The solar system is rich in resources, resources that can make the difference in providing for the 9 billion humans who will be alive in less than 40 years.
Therefore the question is not budget, it is priority, and with the right priority our national space efforts should have a budget of at least $75 billion per year.
Human Component of Space Exploration.
In your opinion, what is the relative value of a space exploration program (to low-Earth orbit and beyond) that includes humans as compared to a space exploration program that is conducted exclusively with robotic, uncrewed spacecraft and rovers? That is, to what extent does a human presence add value to a space exploration program, and is it worth the cost and risk?

This is the old humans vs robots canard and truly has no place in the deliberations of such a body as this. To even ask this question indicates a serious misunderstanding of the value of the space enterprise to the nation and the world. It may be that this was placed here to simulate discussion and it is in this context that it will be answered.

We live on an Earth where in less than forty years we will have a population of over 9 billion people. There is a large school of thought that the resources of our planet cannot long sustain such a population and that it is inevitable that with the exhaustion of our resources our civilization will collapse. This is what I call a “one world” argument that ignores the vast resources of our solar system in energy, materials, and living space. In my chapter on Space Power Theory this was called “the geocentric mindset”. This mindset takes as a given that there is nothing of value in space, when nothing is farther from the truth.

The obverse of the geocentric one world mindset is the “Many Worlds” hypothesis.
The many worlds hypothesis has as its core the scientific fact that our solar system is rich with resources and that it is our goal not only to obtain these resources for the preservation and extension of our global civilization, it is our goal to take our civilization to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. In this many worlds hypothesis it is an intrinsic value that humans and machines together will create a solar system spanning civilization of unparalleled wealth, technology, and freedom. We have the technology, we have the financial ability, the question is whether our leaders have the vision to do their part to enable this future.

NASA Communications
Do you feel that NASA is very good, moderately good or not very good at communicating its vision, mission and strategic direction to its stakeholders, including the public? Why? How do you obtain information about NASA (TV news, websites, Twitter or other social media, etc.). If you think NASA’s communication strategy needs improvement, what specifically do you recommend? Why?

There are two NASA’s. The first NASA is the one that we who are insiders know about. The agency who is the hostage to political interests, where decisions are made not on what is in the best interest of the nation but on which senator has the best means of squeezing NASA to make it provide for his or her favorite pork barrel. This is the NASA that destroys the space shuttle program with no replacement. This is the NASA that spends more than a Nimitz class super carrier on a telescope. This is a NASA that never saw a budget that it could not overrun so badly as to endanger the entire NASA mission.

Then there is the NASA that the public sees. This is the NASA that, at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night, has several thousand people in the quad at NASA Ames to watch the landing of curiosity, and they weren’t all NASA employees or contractors. This is the NASA where at 10:30 in the evening in Los Angeles, you could not even get to the Griffith Park Observatory where several thousand more people were waiting for Curiosity’s landing. This is the NASA that, though it is 0.5% of the Federal budget, gets 98% of all government internet traffic, and drives entire sectors of the global internet bandwidth during moments like Curiosity’s landing.

No one gives a damn about NASA’s communication of its strategic direction, people care about results. The American public is far better at understanding what NASAs strategic direction should be and it is to the shame of the agency, these committees such as this, and the congress, that NASA is not what the American public think it should be. That is NASA’s biggest problem.

The recommendation is to do more exploration!

International Collaboration
Should the United States conduct future human space exploration efforts on its own, like the Apollo program, or should the United States conduct such efforts as collaborative international efforts, like the International Space Station? If you recommend the latter approach, should the United States insist on taking the lead role? Why?

The United States of America, even with its flaws, is the hope of the world. Of course we should collaborate with our international friends. That should not substitute for leadership. It should not be used as a means to cut the budget. Our leadership will do more to foster international collaboration than international collaboration will do to foster leadership.

It is time for us to lead.

Commercial Space Ventures
Should NASA and the federal government continue current efforts to encourage the development of a commercial space industry as is, or should it either curtail or expand these efforts? What specific actions would you recommend? Why?

1.  Zero G Zero Tax

Zero G Zero Tax (ZGZT) is a tax policy whereby federal taxes on profits, and investment capital gains are taxed at zero percent for a period of twenty years. Existing industries such as communications and remote sensing are excluded. The internet has exploded into a complete revolution of the way our entire civilization works, and this was aided by a favorable tax policy. The economic development of the solar system is more important to our global family than even the Internet.

2. Large Scale Prizes

The use of prizes in history to foster innovation is well known. The design of every locomotive on rails is directly descended from a prize competition in 1825 for a viable system to move freight and people over rails. The Ortieg prize in the early 20th century provided the incentive that allowed Charles Lindberg to raise the funds that he needed to build and fly the Spirit of St. Louis over the Atlantic and change the aviation world. The Ansari X prize provided the incentive that enabled Burt Rutan to build Spaceship 1, who’s commercial descendant will enter service carrying passengers within the next several months.

Prizes must be sized to provide enough financial incentive to recoup most of not all of the commercial cost of a venture and be structured to enable a sustainable market after the prize is won.

Prize 1: The Humans to the Moon prize.

A prize of $5 billion dollars to the company/group/organization who can place three humans on the Moon, keep them there for six months, and return them safely to the Earth.

Prize 2: The propellant prize.

A prize of $5 billion dollars for the first ton of propellant derived from lunar resources and returned to low Earth Orbit at the International Space Station or other low orbit.

Other Remarks
Are there any additional comments regarding NASA’s strategic direction that you would like to make?

It is unfortunate that the composition of this NRC council on NASA’s strategic direction has no core member from the commercial space industry. The credentials of the members are stellar within their realms but these are narrow areas of expertise that do not allow for the long view or the broad outlook that the nation demands in charting the strategic direction of the nation’s space efforts.

It is recommended that the NRC team doing this effort bring together the nation’s experts and futurists in this arena and to strongly consider the role of the economic development and even colonization of the solar system not as quaint science fiction, but as concrete goals to be obtained by our generation.

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Changing the Conversation about the Economic Development of the Moon

Changing the Conversation 

It is time to throw down the gauntlet as they say, regarding the Moon. It is my firm conviction that the industrialization of the Moon is the necessary and logical first goal of the second American space age.  The industrial capability of the Moon and its near space environs can now be developed. The industrialization of the Moon paves the way for reusable human interplanetary spacecraft, large communications and remote sensing platforms in geosynchronous orbit, and the settlement of Mars.  By introducing reusability of the in space segment of all of the elements we transform the first human landing on Mars from a heroic flags and footprints publicity stunt into the first wave of human economic development and colonization of the solar system.  By enabling the development of large platforms in GEO orbit we further leverage the existing $300 billion per year existing economic value of this space real estate.  In short, we transform our current primitive level of space technological development away from the throw away space junk creating model to one wherein we can finally develop the potential of the space economy.

Adapting New Technological Advances to Lunar Industrialization and Mars Settlement

It is my position that we have the technological wherewithal to utilize the most recent and unheralded dramatic advances in robotics, computer controlled manufacturing, and 3D printing technologies.  These developments have pushed us pass the critical mass necessary to create a flourishing lunar manufacturing outpost. An example of this is a three D printer that can print metal.

Many of the superalloys used in advanced military systems have a heavy vacuum as one of the processing steps.  Most if not all of the base elements needed are plentiful on the Moon.

http://www.feinguss-blank.de/english/technologies-solutions/casting/superalloys/

With the abundant titanium, aluminum and other elements on the Moon coupled to e-beam and other additive 3D printing technologies…..

……it is easily possible with the technology we have in hand that to build large, super strong structures on the Moon, launch them into orbit with a reusable lunar RLV and assemble them into a Mars cycler that can be used multiple times as a ferry to move people to Mars, and then return to Earth orbit (probably Earth Moon Libration point 1), where the next set of people and or cargo can be sent.

In this fashion Mars would be transformed into a viable destination for human settlement.

Another dramatic advance that has occurred to make this far more feasible is the revolution in embedded electronics, driven by the hobby, military, and professional robotics world. Arduino, Lynxmotion, Servocity are names and websites that you have probably never heard of are part of a an evolving ecosystem of small and large companies like Analog devices, Maxim, and Intel. These companies are at the base of the food chain for the robotics and remote systems world and their products have helped to dramatically lower the hardware cost of entry for robotics, coupled with an explosion in the software world. Software now exists for autonomous remote locomotion of a wide range of robotics and industrial equipment. This software and hardware has not made it into the NASA world as of yet but in more commercially driven entities remote operation of a plethora of robotic equipment is already a reality.

Greg Baiden, and Penguin Systems are part of that revolution higher in the food chain, making heavy industrial equipment that can be monitored and controlled remotely:

Another conviction; even with all of the advances in automation, humans are 100% required on the Moon. Murphy lives and no matter how many ways that you look at hardware failure and work out methods to to preclude it, failure always finds a way to outsmart you. With enough infrastructure in place humans can also use their creativity to work out new things and way ways of doing things in that environment. Taking humans in the early days of the lunar manufacturing outpost development may be expensive but humans are much more easily reprogrammable than a machine and human problem solving skills will be necessary. We must get away from this idea of robots vs humans, both are necessary on the Earth and they will be off of the Earth, at least for the foreseeable future.

This mobile robot platform would be capable of autonomous as well as tele operated action.

A Different Kind of Exploration Architecture

With the goal of developing a lunar manufacturing outpost (what kind of name could you come up with for the outpost) a different kind of launch and transportation architecture to the Moon becomes more cost effective than a heavy lift vehicle. The only real purpose of a heavy lift launch vehicle is to lift large ground integrated systems into orbit. These systems have to withstand the launch, vibration, and thermal environment in their flight from the Earth to orbit. If we are able to manufacture the large heavy structural and other parts on the Moon, we can change what we lift from the Earth from these large systems to parts. Computers, transceivers, embedded systems, motors, and all the things that can be more easily made on the Earth. Since these are not fully integrated systems, they could be packed just like we pack things for shipping on the Earth in a vibration environment and send them up. If a launch vehicle failed the value of the aggregate of the parts is far less than what the entire system would have cost. This is just the beginning of the savings.

Today we already have crucial elements of a 21st century cis-lunar (Earth Moon system) transportation network.  We have the International Space Station (ISS) that is the aggregation point for payloads and humans in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).  We have near term commercial human spaceflight vehicles from SpaceX (Dragon), Orbital Sciences (Cygnus), the Japanese (HTV), the European (ATV), and the Russian Progress, Soyuz, and Proton vehicles.  The next steps would be a human and or robotic cycler to the Moon, along with a simple system for landing human and robotic payloads along with direct flights of supplies using existing EELV’s, Falcon 9′s, Japanese, European, and Russian launchers.  There are only a very few payloads that ever require a heavy lifter and if we shift the emphasis to lunar manufacturing, then the need for heavy lift basically goes away.

Premature?

The inevitable push back is that this is not possible, it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and decades, and whatever new reason can be thought up. However, I ask the reader to put this thought aside for a second and consider the value of having a lunar manufacturing outpost that would build these systems. This would completely revolutionize our society. No longer is Mars that far off target,it is within our grasp. Resource depletion? The World Wildlife Federation Periodically puts out a press release stating that we need the equivalent of two more Earth’s to supply the 9 billion inhabitants of the Earth in 2050. Since this is obviously impossible we have to change our entire civilization to somehow move backward to the 19th century. The startling fact is that it is now possible to put the thousands of worlds of the asteroid belt and those near the earth into service to serve the resource needs of the Earth.

This was foreseen as far back as 1965 by Neil Ruzic in his book “The Case for Going to the Moon”.  An image of his vision of a lunar manufacturing operation is shown below:

Lunar Manufacturing Using the Advantages of Vacuum and Precision Temperature Control in Cryostat Processors

The bowl shaped devices above are cryostats.  These were patented by Mr. Ruzic during the writing of this book and are standard items in Earth bound vacuum manufacturing today as they allow for precise temperature control of processes like the forming of superalloys for aerospace.  Ruzic took this much farther in his book, showing how entire factories built in cryostats could be used on the Moon to leverage the advantages of the Moon’s environments.  He did not see the Moon as a place where things can’t get done, but as a place that enables things that otherwise we could never get done.  That is how the mindset must change.  Thinking about what can be done with the Moon is a lot more practical than complaining about the difficulties.

How do We Do this Thing?

This type of development is not all NASA’s job. NASA can work to build technologies to support this type of development and can help drive the destinations for science purposes. The government did not build the intercontinental railroad but it did enable their development. The Pacific railway act of 1862 can a model for our future in space. People will say that in the middle of a recession we cannot fund or do something like this or that we have other priorities. When the pacific railway act was signed the blood of Americans had been shed in civil war not fifty miles from the capital not long before. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would die in that war in the next three years and yet the government found the money for the pacific railway act because it was important to the future of our nation. Space is just as important to our future now.

Money

Simple, two paths, one is by using the model of the Pacific Railway Act, which is similar in structure to the COTS missions to ISS today. Or by a Prize. The prize path is more desirable as it results in the most innovation and competition. The prizes have to be substantial.

Say

Ten billion dollars for two humans to live on the Moon for six months.

And

Fifteen billion dollars additional for the first lunar surface to lunar orbit RLV that does the trip twice in one week.  This would be required to use propellant derived from the Moon itself.

That money can come out of the High Speed Railroad fund and would be a far better use of the funds, and one that looks forward and not backward.

By using the prize approach the broader economy will be stimulated but only for achievement.  The prize has to be high enough to enable the entrants a profit, but not enough to be the same size of outlay if the government was going to do it.   There is absolutely nothing in the world precluding congress and the white house from doing this and the value of doing this far outweighs the cost to the treasury.

Why This and Not That?

Basically all of NASA’s architectures since about 1990 have been the equivalent of an Antarctic research station on the Moon and or Mars.  These destinations are for everyone and if instead of focusing on the science mission we must focus on the development of these locations for the benefit of all mankind.

Is not this goal worth solving the ISRU problem?  That is all stands between us and lunar manufacturing.  A scientific outpost was a worthy goal 20 years ago.  However, today we must look beyond that to the economic possibilities of the Moon and how it can be leveraged to solve the 21st century problems of sustaining and expanding the reach of our civilization here on the Earth for the 9 billion people who will be living here within a single generation.  The future is not Mad Max, the future can be the starship Enterprise.  Which way it goes is up to us.

The beginnings of a lunar manufacturing outpost

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Slaying Sacred Space Cows

I spend a fair amount of time discussing space development with people, in presentations,  blogs, and in personal conversations.  Most people who know me know that one of my prime foci is off planet industrialization, principally beginning with orbital space and then the Moon.  One of the most baffling and tragic responses that I get in this realm is the complete dismissal of the entire concept.  The back and forth in someone else’s blog thread is never satisfying because you cannot develop more than a short stream of thought and when the other person/persons are simply dismissive, no real progress is made.  Thus in this missive I am going to go into some of my basic thoughts regarding lunar industrialization and see if we can get beyond these, in my opinion, misunderstandings regarding how hard it is.

Background

As is my way in developing these ideas lets begin with how things are done here on the Earth and then see how they might develop on the Moon.  I always look at history as a guide.  I grew up near Birmingham Alabama, then called “The Pittsburg of the South”.  Some of my earliest memories are of riding in a car by the big steel mills in Ensley, Fairfield, and downtown (Sloss furnaces) Alabama.

These places always fascinated me as you could see the hot steel ingots being stamped, rolled, and worked from the car.  At Sloss you could see the hot steel being poured from the ladles into molds.  Many of my friends that I grew up with now work at steel mills like Fairfield, ACIPCO, O’Neal Steel, and others.  While I have not worked at any of these myself, I know a pretty good bit about them and have used their products in hardware that we have built, such as our 22,500 lb steel solar/wind trailers.  Figure 1 is a picture of the frame of our solar/wind trailer under construction:

Figure 1: The GSW-7000 Solar/Wind Trailer Frame Under Construction, Centreville Maryland, 2011

The trailer under construction in the picture above is made from standard A-36 steel.  The frame parts are made from tube, “c” channel, flat plate, and square tubes.  All of these parts are welded together using very simple frames, c clamps, and other devices to hold the pieces together while they are welded.  This principle is pretty much how most heavy equipment is built, with the larger production lines being more automated.  The pieces here came from a steel distributor and were cut into the right lengths/sizes using laser and or plasma cutters.

This background is provided in order to convey to the reader a small sense of my history with steel as well as a bit of information on how vehicles are put together in a low production environment.  There is nothing magic about how this is done, just simple steel products welded together by competent people who do this as a living.  I love metals and have spent a lot of my life around heavy equipment and its uses, especially in the coal mining industry.  Thus I can at least speak with some knowledge of the subject here on the Earth.  The interesting part is how to translate this to how we would do such things on the Moon.

Basic Things Needed for Lunar Industrialization

There are four basic things needed for basic lunar industrialization.

  • Raw Materials
  • Energy
  • Manufacturing Infrastructure
  • Workforce

Availability of Lunar Metals

It is well known from the literature (one example) on the Apollo samples (the greatest part of their legacy) that there is meteoric metals and nano phase iron in proportions up to 1%.  Apollo 16 samples, being from a highlands site has the greatest proportion of meteoric materials, which is to be expected as the highlands have the oldest regolith.  Thus if we were to do the most minimal processing of highlands regolith from a site at the North pole (my favored location for many reasons), then we can expect to obtain quite a bit of metal. Beneficiation, or concentrating, of this metal could be accomplished on the Moon with nothing more than an electromagnet and a dump truck rover.   There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that a robotic rover with a magnet could not pick up a minimum of 100 kilograms per hour of this meteoric metal.  This can be done without any of the exotic chemical or other methods of separating metals from their oxides on the Moon.

Melting and Forming the Metal

There are different ways of melting metal but they all require energy.  For the Moon there are two easy ways to do it.  The first way is to simply use the sun and all you need to do it is a fresnel lens.  Here is a video of a guy who does just that, with a very simple and lightweight system:

Here is a second and much faster method using a parabolic mirror:

If you notice the video closely you will see that they only used a small fraction of the available light on the parabolic mirror to melt the steel.  At the lunar north pole where up to 100% of the time it is sunlit (Northern hemisphere summer) there is plenty of sun to support a continuous operating foundry.

The second means, using indirect sunlight in the form of electrical power, is achieved by using an induction furnace.  The next video shows that:

So what we have here are two different methods of melting metals that would be directly applicable to melting metals on the Moon, even with a lot of rock contamination, which since rock is lighter, floats to the top and is scooped off as slag.

The next video shows metal pouring and forming.  The sand mold method of metal casting is as old as the Hittite empire, long before Rome.  The video here is from a British television program called “Metal Monkeys”.

Remember at the beginning of this article where in figure one the trailer is made from welded pieces of steel?  It is quite simple using the sand mold process to make the basic parts that go into the trailer frame construction.  On the Moon it would be done using sintering of the regolith using microwaves after forming the desired part:  Figure 2 shows my concept of the induction furnace and mold that would be used to build structures on the Moon:

Figure 2: This shows a vacuum induction furnace on the surface of the Moon that would be used to melt and pour metal.

Uses of Metal On the Moon

There is no end of the uses of metal on the Moon.  For simple parts and objects the manufacturing infrastructure is minimal.  All that was used in the construction of our trailers in figure 1 was saw horses to hold the frame, C clamps to hold the pieces together while they are tacked together, and then a bridge crane to lift the assembly and turn it over during the production process.  Obviously you need a welder as well, but on the Moon welding is very easy and you could use a laser welder, which requires a lot of power but little in the way of consumables or good old concentrated sunlight again.

Figure 3 shows an Eagle Engineering design of the LOTRAN rover on the Moon:

Figure 3: LOTRAN Rover, made from aluminum tubes as can be seen in the drawing

Figure four below shows a lunar habitat with structure holding up the weight of the regolith radiation shielding:

Figure 5: From Eagle Engineering, Lunar Habitat and Support Structure for Regolith Shielding

In figure 3 and 4 there are many of the structural pieces that, rather than being brought up from the Earth, could be derived from local ISRU derived metals.  Even the habitats themselves could be made mostly from locally derived metals.  There is a class of steel called “Maraging Steel” that is a high nickel alloy that is very close to what you would have available from meteoric and nano phase iron derived from the regolith.

Slaying Sacred Space Cows With a Gestalt Tempered Blade

One of the sacred cows that drives the demand for a heavy lift vehicle is that ISRU is not ready for prime time, that it is too hard, and that it is something that will happen in 20, 50, or 100 years, pick your time.  A friend of mine who was on the Augustine II commission told me that Norm Augustine simply would not allow any discussion of ISRU as an enabling technology for transforming the Constellation program.  He said that he simply did not believe it was possible.  In another blog forum recently when I brought up the possibility of making rover parts from ISRU derive metal, the person I was interacting with simply refused to carry on the conversation as for me to even mention that was to shift the discussion into the non-credible.

After reading this somewhat long post I hope that the reader will get the idea that obtaining, melting, and forming metal is no big deal.  As someone who grew up with and continues to work with steel I find it astonishing when otherwise intelligent people simply dismiss the possibility with a wave of the hand.  There is absolutely nothing precluding a metals centric ISRU implementation on the Moon that would have an immediate upstream effect on the entire architecture for lunar/Mars exploration.

In all of the discussions about heavy lift, I have never been able to find anyone who can list more than a few payloads that require a heavy lifter.  These are things such as a habitats, pressurized rovers, power systems, and humans.  With a robust implementation of ISRU coupled with the landing of modest equipment with existing vehicles, the need for heavy lift is completely eliminated.

That is a sacred cow worth slaying…

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