The International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) Reboot Project, Bringing an Old Bird Back to the Earth, and Back to Life

Life isn’t fair. So many times in my life I start to do something and end up going in a completely different direction. I do a lot of advanced technology spacecraft and systems design for lunar, mars, and asteroid exploration. I love to think about, plan, and build systems that will help mankind extend its reach beyond the Earth.   I was very fortunate that when I left the computer industry in my late 20’s to return to college and get my degree I was able to have many wonderful mentors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Some of these were  German rocket scientists like Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger and many of the Americans who made up the team that built mankind’s first lunar exploration system. Also, when I was in my early 20’s in the early 1980’s I worked as a non-degreed engineer in the California computer industry. I had great mentors there as well, who taught me how to be a good engineer in the extremely competitive microcomputer industry of the era.

One of the companies in the microcomputer industry back then was Vector Graphic Inc. who, before the advent of the IBM PC, was one of the leaders and innovators in the industry.  My boss and the manager of engineering was Nick Esser, an incredible engineer and a great mentor.  I would often come bounding into his office with what I thought was a great idea.  He would immediately stop me and say, sounds good, now go research what has already been done in this area.  Well we did not have the online resources that we have today so in order to impress the boss, I would go and do a lot of in depth research, perusing IEEE proceedings, textbooks, ask people questions.  I would often determine that my bright idea was someone else’s before me and often they had usually done it better.  This taught me two things.  The first is that there are a LOT of smart people out there, many of them much smarter than I (when you are 22 this is a revelation).  The second was that in doing this research I would almost always come out smarter myself.  I took this incredible lesson with me to my college years and it has made a critical difference for me in how I think about technology and engineering in general. It is also the origin of the life is not fair comment.

How the Above Relates to the ISEE-3 Project

Many of you know about our Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), and many of you who read this helped us out last year as we raised a critical $68k dollars that helped us get over the top to obtain more funding, which has allowed us to finish the tape captures (thanks!).   That project started when I was working in 1989 with Lunar Orbiter Lunar images derived from film, and found out after my research that the original tapes had much higher dynamic range.  This gave me the technical foundation to sell the project to NASA in 2008 after we found and obtained the tapes and tape machines.  Despite deep skepticism that the project was viable or worthwhile we were able to show the improvements to worldwide acclaim and thus gained the credibility that we could work with and improve old data sets.

Like most engineers and scientists I would rather work on new missions but it just kept bugging my engineering sensibility that these tapes were not being saved and also I knew that if our team did not take on this project, no one else would, and thus an incredibly valuable part of our history as well as incredibly valuable data for future science and exploration would be lost.  Now that the LOIRP project is coming to a successful conclusion, another instance of a violation of my engineering sensibility has taken place.  That violation is that a spacecraft, originally called the International Sun-Earth Explorer or ISEE-3 is coming back to Earth in August and if something is not done it will be lost forever.  Why should anyone care?  That my friends is the rest of the story and why I am going to ask you to liberate some of your hard earned cash to give to this project…

The ISEE Mission

The ISEE-3 vehicle was the third of three spacecraft, two from NASA and one from ESA. Figure 1 is the NASA graphic for the mission:

Figure 1: ISEE-1,2, and 3, launched 1978

Figure 1: ISEE-1,2, and 3, launched 1978

The three ISEE spacecraft are comprised of a mother/daughter (ISEE-1/2) configuration and a heliocentric spacecraft (ISEE-3). The ISEE-1 and -2 spacecraft, mated together, were launched on October 22, 1977, and the ISEE-3 was launched on August 12, 1978. The purpose of the ISEE Program was to increase knowledge of the magnetosphere, interplanetary space, and the interactions between them.

The original mission objectives were:

  •  Investigate solar-terrestrial relationships at the outermost boundaries of the earth’s magnetosphere.
  • Examine in detail the structure of the solar wind near the earth.
  • Examine the shock wave boundary between the solar wind and the earth.
  • Investigate motions of, and mechanisms operating in, the plasma sheets.

The ISEE-3, the one of interest today, had an extensive array of experiments, designed to probe solar emissions and to gauge the effect of these emissions on the Earth’s magnetosphere.   Figure 2 shows a graphic of the ISEE-3 spacecraft:

Figure 2: The ISEE-3 Spacecraft

Figure 2: The ISEE-3 Spacecraft

ISEE-3 s a spin stabilized spacecraft and was built by Fairchild Space in Maryland (now Orbital Sciences Corporation).  Look at the graphic above and you will see that the 3D radio mapping antenna in the radial axis is 92 meters across from tip to tip!  Figure 3 is the vehicle in testing and a graphic of it in space:

Figure 3: ISEE-3 In Testing and a Graphic of its 1985 Comet Flyby

Figure 3: ISEE-3 In Testing and a Graphic of its 1985 Comet Flyby

Table 1 shows the instruments for ISEE-3 and their operational status as of the last substantial contact in 1999:

Table 1: ISEE-3 Instruments, the Principal Investigators, and the Last Known State

Table 1: ISEE-3 Instruments, the Principal Investigators, and the Last Known State

In short, this is an incredibly capable spacecraft.  If that was it, it would be an interesting story.  However, this is just the beginning.

The ISEE-3 Extended Mission Turns into ICE

Most spacecraft in this era were not really meant for extended operations beyond a few years (Voyager 1 and 2 being the obvious exceptions).  The primary mission of the ISEE-3 spacecraft was three years.  The ISEE trio were designed to operate through solar cycle 21 maximum and all three operated brilliantly.  These were the first spacecraft dedicated to the study of heliophysics, a term coined in 1981 based upon the discoveries of the ISEE satellites.  A NASA Technical Reports Server ( search turns up dozens of scientific papers, almost all breaking new ground in the emerging discipline of solar/terrestrial physics.

The ISEE-1 and 2 spacecraft were in low earth orbit, but ISEE-3 was placed into the Earth/Sun Lagrange point L1, the first spacecraft to be sent to that location.  This location, about 1 million kilometers closer to the sun than the Earth, is still gravitationally bound to the Earth and thus is “upstream” of the planet and in front of the bow shock of the Earth’s magnetosphere.  This is the perfect vantage point for a maximally instrumented spacecraft to observe solar phenomenon before it reaches the interface between the solar wind and the magnetosphere.

Dr. Robert Farquhar, ISEE-3 Flight Dynamics Manager comes up with a scenario that will take ISEE-3 out of the Earth-Moon system and take it to an asteroid flyby with comet Gaicobini-Zinner and then later to comet Halley.  Figure 4 shows the flight trajectory for this extended mission:

Figure 4: ISEE-3/ICE Extended Mission to World’s first Comet Flybys

Figure 4: ISEE-3/ICE Extended Mission to World’s first Comet Flybys

In order to obtain the energy necessary to escape Earth orbit for the comet flybys, the ISEE-3 spacecraft did multiple flybys of the Earth and a final flyby of the Moon.  This is an extremely delicate dance of orbital dynamics, trading of gravitational energy  for kinetic energy, a strategy developed by Dr. Farquhar and executed by his team.  When ISEE-3 did its final lunar flyby it was renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE). The renamed ICE spacecraft left the Earth/Moon system in September of 1982 (about the time I started bugging my boss).  On September 11, 1985 ICE passed through the tail of comet Gaicobini-Zinner at a distance of less than 8,000 kilometers, a masterful feat of celestial navigation.  Figure 5: shows the encounter:

Figure 5: ISEE-3/ICE Passes the Tail of Comet Gaicobini-Zinner Sept 11, 1985

Figure 5: ISEE-3/ICE Passes the Tail of Comet Gaicobini-Zinner Sept 11, 1985

ICE used its full suite of instruments during this pass and had the first instrumental confirmation that a comet perturbs the solar wind and the  magnetic field.  Again, a search of the NASA Technical Reports Server finds dozens of papers about this flyby and the next one at comet Halley.  Figure 6 shows the Halley and Gaicobini-Zinner flyby:

Figure 6: Two Comet Flyby’s By ISEE-3/ICE Spacraft in Heliocentric Orbit

Figure 6: Two Comet Flyby’s By ISEE-3/ICE Spacraft in Heliocentric Orbit

The illustration in figure 6 is relative to a fixed Sun-Earth line, essentially an inertial point in space.  The flyby of Halley’s comet was from a further distance of about 21 million kilometers.  Even at this distance the sensitive instruments on ICE detected the influence of the comet on the surrounding solar wind and magnetic field.  After the flybys ICE was tasked to do complimentary studies of the interplanetary solar wind, magnetic fields, and coronal mass ejections in concert with the NASA/ESA Ulysses spacecraft, that had been slung into a solar polar orbit by a close flyby of Jupiter.

After these flybys of two comets and the solar mission by this veteran spacecraft, Bob Farquhar’s flight dynamic guys had one more trick up their sleeves, and it was a doozy.

ICE/ISEE-3 Returns to the Earth in 2014

Figure 7 shows the final tour-de-force genius of the ICE navigation team:

Figure 7: ICE Trajectory from April 1986 Through August 2014

Figure 7: ICE Trajectory from April 1986 Through August 2014


The above illustration shows the orbital trace of ICE/ISEE-3 from a fixed Sun-Earth line.  Each loop represents each time the ICE spacecraft passe by the Earth.  It is in a 355 day solar orbit so ICE “laps” Earth in those number of days.  The orbit of ICE is slightly eccentric orbit with an aphelion (furthest distance from the sun) of 1.03 AU, and a perihelion (closest to the sun) of 0.93 AU.  What this does is to set ICE up for an encounter with the Earth, a lunar flyby, on August 10th of this year.

The Return and the Dilemma

On March 2nd  2014 a group of amateur radio satellite operators at AMSAT-DL in Germany heard the ICE spacecraft carrier, that had been left on intentionally by NASA.  Figure 8 shows the signal trace:

Figure 8: ICE S-Band Transponder First Reception (Down Converted)

Figure 8: ICE S-Band Transponder First Reception (Down Converted)

ISEE-3 ICE spacecraft signal spectrum recorded on March 2, 2014 at 1822 UT using the 20m dish antenna of Bochum Observatory, Germany. Range 43M km, azimuth 230°, elevation 49°. Average of 2 spectra spanning 2.1 seconds.

This is the reception report from the radio telescope at Bochum Observatory.  This was followed by a reception report from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Allen array on March 20th.  This was followed by a reception report by Arecibo, the largest radio telescope in the world on April 9th of this year. Another report comes from Morehead State University, who we are working with in figure 9:

Figure 9: Morehead State Reception of the ICE Telemetry Transmitter 3/10/14

Figure 9: Morehead State Reception of the ICE Telemetry Transmitter 3/10/14

The dilemma is this, after all this time, after all the travels, and all of the planning by the ICE flight dynamics team, the one thing that they could not have foreseen in 1987 is that NASA would no longer be able to hear or to pay for the recovery of ICE.  Linked here is an article by Emily Lakdalla of the Planetary Society.  She copied a post by NASA Goddard on the subject.  It is reposted here:

Communication involves speaking, listening and understanding what we hear. One of the main technical challenges the ISEE-3/ICE project has faced is determining whether we can speak, listen, and understand the spacecraft and whether the spacecraft can do the same for us. Several months of digging through old technical documents has led a group of NASA engineers to believe they will indeed be able to understand the stream of data coming from the spacecraft. NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) can listen to the spacecraft, a test in 2008 proved that it was possible to pick up the transmitter carrier signal, but can we speak to the spacecraft? Can we tell the spacecraft to turn back on its thrusters and science instruments after decades of silence and perform the intricate ballet needed to send it back to where it can again monitor the Sun? The answer to that question appears to be no.

The transmitters of the Deep Space Network, the hardware to send signals out to the fleet of NASA spacecraft in deep space, no longer includes the equipment needed to talk to ISEE-3. These old-fashioned transmitters were removed in 1999. Could new transmitters be built? Yes, but it would be at a price no one is willing to spend. And we need to use the DSN because no other network of antennas in the US has the sensitivity to detect and transmit signals to the spacecraft at such a distance.

This effort has always been risky with a low probability of success and a near-zero budget. It is thanks to a small and dedicated group of scientists and engineers that we were able to get as far as we have. Thank you all very much.

Thus, with an impossible schedule, and without a budget, was born the ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project Begins

I have known about the ISEE-3/ICE spacecraft since my college days at the University of Alabama in Huntsville where I worked for the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR).  I have known Dr. Farquhar personally and by reputation for many years.  His work in orbital dynamics should have gotten him a Nobel Prize for its originality and brilliance.  When I read the above about them not having the equipment to talk to the spacecraft, it got me thinking and researching.

Our team has already successfully built a demodulator and software to recover images and data from the 1960’s Lunar Orbiter.  We have also recovered and modernized the infrared images from the Nimbus I,II, and III spacecraft of the 1960’s.  I had a vague notion that the ISEE-3 was not that much more advanced, so yet again our team started diving into the data and found that there was no computer on the spacecraft, which made things easier.  The modulation scheme is simpler than modern cell phones, which use a modern technique of using software for the modem, directly digitizing the signal and then processing it.  It seemed logical that this could be used for the ISEE-3 spacecraft.

Last year, as most readers who are aware of the Lunar Orbiter LOIRP project know, we crowd funded some significant money last year, about $68k, which spawned more private funding, which allowed us to make enough progress to get further funding that allowed us to completely finish the tape digitization portion of that project (we are still processing the final products).  Keith Cowing of NASA Watch was instrumental in making that happen.  These types of crowd funding projects require someone who really knows the media and very few people know more than Keith about modern online media Keith is also our co-lead on the LOIRP project.  So we started talking about what we would do if we were to do this project.  Keith is starting up a non profit STEM education project called Space College and this seemed to be a great project that we would use to involve students, volunteers and others attempt to recover the spacecraft.

Keith, being a former NASA civil servant and a long time pain in the rear/friend of the agency, knows everyone.  So, after it was determined by NASA GSFC that they could not do this, and after a teleconference where NASA headquarters told NASA GSFC, their contractors, and us that there was no money for any recovery effort, we started another crowd funding effort on Rockethub.  Things have started moving since then, beginning with panic.  Why, because we only have a short amount of time to make this happen!  We are fortunate that in two weeks we have raised over $51k of our $125k goal, but that is not where the panic is.

A question that you might have is why do this, what is going to come from it if I give a bit of my hard earned money to support it?  The long term answer is that we want to put it back into Earth Orbit, turn the science instruments on, and have it be an open science data source, used for STEM education, amateur radio solar predictions, and for science about the sun.  It is also an incredible technical challenge for as far as we know, no private entity has ever commanded, communicated with, and returned to earth orbit a spacecraft!  It is also a testament to the foresight of Dr. Farquhar and his team that deserves recognition.  Here is a list of firsts for the ISEE-/ICE spacecraft:

  • First Mission to a Libration Point
  • First Mission to Use a Suite of Instruments across the electromagnetic spectrum to measure the dynamics of the magnetosphere between the Earth and sun during a solar maximum.
  • First Lunar Flyby for Gravity Assist to an Interplanetary Trajectory
  • First Comet Flyby (1985)
  • Second Comet Flyby (1986)
  • 36 Year Trajectory to Return to Earth (2014)

This is a truly historic spacecraft and to not try and save it to me is an engineering and science tragedy that offends my engineering sensibility. Here simply is the problem in Figure 10:

Figure 10: Range from the Earth of the ICE/ISEE-3 Spacecraft

Figure 10: Range from the Earth of the ICE/ISEE-3 Spacecraft

In looking at figure 10 you see as we get closer to the date of the perigee pass around the Earth, the distance continues to decrease.  The problem is that no matter how good those guys were in doing the maneuvers in the 1980’s, it is not perfect and will not result in a capture into Earth orbit.  Thus we have to fire the thrusters of the spacecraft by late June or there will not be enough fuel left to make the course correction to put it into a permanent earth orbit.  Thus, Isaac Newton is driving this bus and unless we change the course, the spacecraft will drift back into planetary space, not to return until 2029.

ISEE-3 Reboot Technical Issues and Our Process

There are several questions that must be answered in the ISEE-3 Reboot Project.

–      Is the Spacecraft Still Alive (verified yes)

–      Can We Talk to it? (Under Development)

–      Can the Propulsion System Be Activated (Working on it)

–      Can the Spacecraft Be Put Back Into A Stable Earth Orbit (Depends on the Previous Questions)

We have made a lot of organizational and technical progress toward answering these questions.  In summary, we have the folks at Morehead State University in Kentucky working with us on the project.  We have also gained the agreement from Arecibo that they will listen to the spacecraft more for us and that if we send them a transmitter that is easy to set up, that they will transmit our command signals to the spacecraft.  This is beyond valuable and means that we don’t really have to worry that much about link margin but can just blast a signal that way, especially as the range is decreasing every day.

Our plan for the recovery is this.

  1. Secure and send 200W transmitter to Arecibo.
  2. Arecibo sends simple audio tone to the spacecraft to ascertain whether or not the ranging function was left on.
  3. Develop a single manual command that can be fed into the HP synthesizer at Arecibo to turn the Engineering Telemetry function on.
  4. Ascertain the health of the spacecraft and debug the telemetry recording and display system.
  5. Figure out how to do the ranging, we  have a team working this right now.
  6. Update any trajectory (Dave Dunham/Farquhar).
  7. Install 700 Watt transmitter at Morehead State and test as the spacecraft gets closer.
  8. Command the burn either at Morehead or Arecibo.
  9. Pray
  10. Do ranging after the spacecraft is captured into Earth orbit for final orbital insertion burns (much easier to do with reduced range).
  11. Put into final orbit and re-commission the science experiments.

We have several groups of people working with us right now, almost everyone a volunteer at this point.  We still have a couple of really big problems (well maybe four or five) to solve, the ranging seeming to be the biggie.

We will have a lot more press releases and blog posts out over the next few days but I wanted to give everyone the highlights.  We are going to setup our mission operations center at a location that I can’t disclose until some paperwork is finally signed but it is in progress.  Really all we are going to do is to revive the command and telemetry consoles.  We are going to display in real time the propulsion system, the attitude determination and control system, as well as the power system.  We have several analyses done, documents scanned, data transferred from archived pdf’s to excel, and many other things.  We have an incredible bunch of people helping us but we need one thing more…


As I stated earlier, we are right now an almost completely volunteer project with the exception of a couple of my engineers at my small company who are working on critical aspects of the project.  We are raising $125k that we hope will get us to the point where we get the steps outlined above done.  If we can do this, we will have an open source, publically accessible satellite data stream of the first open source satellite above Low Earth Orbit.  Personally I am already learning boatloads about how to operate and control an interplanetary satellite.  I am still learning after all these years and the design of the ISEE-3 has some incredibly interesting features that I think are valuable to spacecraft design today that we may use.


If we don’t fire the thrusters by late June, figure 11 is what the orbit will look like:

Figure 11: The Fate of ICE/ISEE-3 If We Fail

Figure 11: The Fate of ICE/ISEE-3 If We Fail

I can tell you that, from being completely panicked that this was going to be darn near impossible, it is just going to be very darn hard.  It will be impossible without your financial help.  Here is the trajectory in figure 12 if we save the bird:

Figure 12: ISEE-3R Flight Path Baseline If We are Successful

Figure 12: ISEE-3R Flight Path Baseline If We are Successful

Help us be successful.  What I would like to ask of this community is that 300 people give $100 each to the project.  For those who cannot do that, please do what you can.  I can tell you though, that if the 300 give $100 the rest will come.  It is just how the momentum thing works in crowd funding.  I know that this is hard earned money and that this is a science mission.  However, it is also about bringing a team of people together to do what other people say is impossible.  Going back to my opening, I did a lot of research on this, and by standing on the shoulders of giants like Bob Farquhar, Dave Dunham, and the rest of the ISEE-3/ICE crew, we can do this.  NASA is providing moral support and documents and have indicated their positive support for our effort.  More to come soon, so again thanks and I look forward to giving everyone more reports soon!

Oh, by the way, here is the link to our crowd funding site:


Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3) Reboot Project, Bringing an Old Bird Back to the Earth, and Back to Life


Hope you folks will help out!

Originally posted on Watts Up With That?:


ISEE3-ICE, launched in 1978

Citizen backed space science attempts to do the near impossible

Guest essay by Dennis Wingo

Life isn’t fair. So many times in my life I start to do something and end up going in a completely different direction. I do a lot of advanced technology spacecraft and systems design for lunar, mars, and asteroid exploration. I love to think about, plan, and build systems that will help mankind extend its reach beyond the Earth.

I was very fortunate that when I left the computer industry in my late 20’s to return to college and get my degree that I was able to have many wonderful mentors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Some of these were the German rocket scientists like Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger and many of the Americans who made up the team that built mankind’s first lunar exploration systems. When I was in…

View original 3,947 more words

Posted in Space | Leave a comment

The Economic Development of the Solar System: Lessons from 1961


People give me stuff.  Not extremely good stuff like money or airplanes, but still to me very good stuff.  My friend Brad Blair, who was at that time a grad student at the Colorado School of mines in space mining gave me something very valuable.  It was a printed article, scanned from a book.  The Article was Competitive Free Enterprise In Space, written by Ralph J. Cordiner, Chairman of the Board of General Electric and published in 1961.  After Brad gave me this, probably 15 years ago, I never read it as I put it away with other documents and forgot about it.  With a recent move of the last of my stuff from storage to my house, I found it again and was astonished by its clarity, vision, and warnings about the future of space.

A link to the full online version is provided here cordiner-article-1961. I would like to dissect this article in detail to delve into the thoughts of Mr. Cordiner.  Mr. Cordiner is not just any ordinary CEO.  He was the Vice Chairman of the War Production Board in WWII, the all powerful allocator of American industrial resources toward the war effort.  Now the article is couched in the terms of the deepest part of the cold war, but his points are still completely valid and interestingly he foresaw some of the problems we have today in getting away from our free enterprise roots.  Here goes..

General Principles in the Article–Free Enterprise Vs Regimentation

It was a fundamental premise in Cordiner’s article that ultimately free enterprise must be the foundation for the economic development of space.

A distinguishing feature of the free societies, as opposed to communistand other socialist systems, is the use of competitive private enterprise as the primary means of economic development. The citizens of the Unitecl States have both philosophical and practical reasons for preferring business enterprise to government enterprise. Philosophically, the competitive private-enterprise approach is more appropriate to a free society than government-owned or government-controlled industry, which is one of the characteristic features of a regimented society. And practically speaking, the system of competitive private enterprise has enabled this country to produce a level of living that is unmatched anywhere, anytime.

In setting the foundational premise that free enterprise should be the means whereby the economic development of space is ultimately undertaken, Cordiner put together a set of questions based upon that premise and its counter premise of development by a regimented society.  These questions are:

How can we utilize our dynamic system of competitive private enterprise in space, as on earth, to make newly discovered resources useful to man? 

How can private enterprise and private capital make their maximum contribution? What projects will necessarily require government chairmanship and support for their execution? 

What must be done to preserve a free society while competing in an international race for space? How can we assure that when the space frontier is developed, it will be an area of freedom rather than regimentation?

These are darn good questions that today, 53 years later, we still have not fully answered.

Cordiner begins with a historical recap explaining how economic development has always followed exploration.  He begins by recounting economic development of the far flung empire of the Phoenicians a development underpinned by exploration and trade.  Most traders stayed in the safe waters of the Mediterranean sea, content with their profits on known routes.  However, some bold adventurers cast a wider net, and the Phoenician trade routes expanding to the Atlantic and to the Black sea, bringing larger economic benefits, trade, and expanding the resources available to civilization.  The next sentence is the key money quote…

Every new frontier presents the same problem of vision and risk.

Cordiner contrasted the Phoenicians with the Egyptians, who sent ships sailing all the way around Africa in the year 600 B.C.  Africa is rich with resources and if the Pharaoh Necho had followed up the exploration with trade, how much different might the world be today?  He follows with Napoleon’s sale of the Louisiana purchase to the U.S. when France needed money as another example of selling a French vision of tomorrow to Americans to exploit.  President Jefferson did not know what he had bought, but he sent exploration parties, many more than just Lewis and Clark, followed by private traders, homesteaders, and businessmen turning the wilderness into the American heartland.

Cordiner makes the point that in all of these adventures and explorations that technology and human endurance were initially taxed to the limit and that many failed through bad planning or timing, but some succeeded fabulously and thus the world was transformed.  Cordiner continues:

It takes an immense effort of imagination for the citizens to see beyond these initial difficulties of opening a new frontier. No one would pretend to foresee all the economic, political, social, and cultural changes that will follow in the wake of the first exploratory shots into space, any more than the people in the days of Columbus could foresee the twentieth-century world. But such an effort at prophetic imagination is what is required of us as citizens, so that we will not, like Leif Ericson, leave the making of the future to others.

The most important long-term impact of the new space capabilities, therefore, is that they open up a new frontier for exploration · and economic development. From the businessman’s viewpoint, this spells isk and opportunity. But there will be other effects on the nation’s business life.

Imagination, vision, risk, these are the three fundamentals in turning fiction into reality, ideas in to dollars, unexplored worlds into homes for mankind.  Cordiner goes into a section that to us is old history now, how the space race was transforming businesses by accelerating technical progress (Silicon Valley would not be what it is today without the investment to miniaturize components for satellites, think Fairchild, HP, Varian, and other early stalwarts).  Fuel cells, solar cells, and batteries all had their development advanced by the space program of that era.  He also discussed changes in business thinking and the development of satellites, which now just in GEO orbit is a $300 billion dollar a year business.

He also went into the dangers of the dominance by the government of industry.  His prophetic remarks have played out to our national detriment especially in aerospace.  He talked about the danger of the dependence of industry and academia on federal dollars to support research.  His fear that research and development would substantially be under the control of government agencies.  Those of us who follow the aerospace industry know that this has absolutely happened at the big aerospace companies like Boeing, Lockheed, Northrup, ATK, and Raytheon.  He goes into the problem of the “Government Purpose License” something that I have had to deal with directly.  Most of my compatriots don’t even know that when they sign a contract with a government purpose license clause that you are signing away your intellectual property rights to the government and anyone that the government wants to license that IP.

Other areas time has shown to be not as much of a problem, such as government facilities, though the aerospace industry in its draw down due to cuts in government space projects has been closing and selling off much of its own infrastructure.  Following is his most prescient observation:

…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…

Not only did this happen to the space program and aerospace industry, it infected the rest of our society through the meme “if we can send man to the moon then surely we can do, x, y, or z”.  That is playing itself out today in our headlines about healthcare as well as space.

To keep this from getting too long, lets jump to the really visionary part of his exposition.

“Three Stages of Development on the Space Frontier”

When I read this section (the above is Cordiners title), I was blown away, especially as he agrees with me! (sic).  Cordiner explains that by his reasoning developing space will have three main stages, and these stages are the same as with our historical development of frontiers:

  • Exploration
  • Economic Development
  • Mature Economic Operation

The graphics for this are self explanatory and incredibly visionary.

The First Stage of Solar System Economic Development

The First Stage of Solar System Economic Development

This graphic is self explanatory, the first stage of economic development begins in Earth orbit following the trail blazed by the first satellites (this was written 8 years before the moon landings)

The Second Stage of the Economic Development of the Solar System

The Second Stage of the Economic Development of the Solar System

This is where the visionary nature of his writing begins to shine forth.  In his reasoning as mankind (NASA) extends itself through exploration, it is private free enterprise that develops first the near Earth system (including the Moon).  Stage three is truly expansive:

Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System

Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System

With the free market principles espoused by Cordiner there is no doubt whatsoever that he means that the Moon, Mars, and beyond should be the province of free enterprise, governed and regulated by governments, but free enterprise none the less.  Even in the exploration phases he had this to say:

…On the space frontier, the scientific voyages of exploration will also be government-sponsored and financed.  However, the management and operation of these exploratory operations should be done primarily through government contract by private firms, with competitive incentives for superior performance and penalties for failure. Private firms and private universities should design and produce most of the apparatus required to get there and do the exploratory work.

This approach will not only utilize the most experienced scientific and technical organizations in the country, but will also accomplish the objective faster and more economically, and will help prepare the companies for the day when commercial businesses can be conducted utilizing space technologies….

It sounds like he is singing Elon Musk’s song.  Cordiner is not some wild eyed dreamer, he was the second in command of our entire WWII industrial production effort and the president and chairman of the board of one of the largest corporations of its time.  He talks about the eventuality of private launch vehicle companies, satellite construction, commercial space ports, commercial space stations, and more.  It is interesting to note that after Mr. Cordiner’s retirement GE invested more in the aero portion of aerospace and today is still a leading global manufacturer of jet engines.

One of the things Cordiner discussed in detail was the extreme cost of exploration at the time and private monopolies.  He uses the example of Pan Am and that this was an instance of a short term government monopoly that operated through private enterprise, rather than a government flagged airline.  This argument is as new as today’s controversy between the NASA flagged Orion and the private Dragon space vehicles from SpaceX and exactly for the reasons stated in the bold italic text above.  Musk and SpaceX are developing a vehicle for a fraction of the cost of the government directed alternative.  Thus, these are not new ideas, some of the titans of U.S. industry understood these principles  over five decades ago!  Here is his prophetic statement on the subject:

In these areas with commercial potential, the government should avoid the temptation to build operating facilities (under the guise of demonstration units) that will tend to pre-empt the field for tax-subsidized government enterprise and prevent the establishment of private facilities. For example, if in the 1930s the United States had established a nationalized airline instead of helping Pan American to lay the ground work for international air travel, it is likely that international air travel would still be a government monopoly as far as the United States is concerned. The public then would not have the advantage of manyprivate airlines competing for their transoceanic business.

Private industry should move as fast as possible to establish these early space businesses, so that the government can shift its efforts to the many other areas of exploratory work.

This….is….exactly…..what…..happened.  We are over five decades into the space age and still space travel by humans is a government monopoly, because it began that way.  I remember in the early 1980′s when the Willard Rockwell, the CEO of Rockwell International, the company that built the Space Shuttle, wanted to build and extra one with private capital and fly it to deliver satellites.  His proposal was met with fear and loathing by the NASA management of that time.  It has only been very recently that NASA has started to change the way it does business, first with cargo flights to the ISS and hopefully soon with human spaceflight systems designed, built, and operated by private entities to carry humans to the station.

Cordiner continues his missive with several concrete proposals, many of which have been adopted over time but one of them echoes just about all of us who write on this subject and is just as pertinent today as in 1961:

Policy Direction (Cordiners title)

The need for speed and efficiency in the exploration of space requires more coherent policy direction from the Federal government. The individuals who hold responsibility in the various agencies appear to be doing their best to bring order out of chaos, but their efforts in some areas of the space program seem to be frustrated by a confused and top-heavy administrative arrangement.

The next is very good and is just as needed today:

Congressional Statement of Intent

Finally, to assure that the public and the government agencies involved have no misconceptions of national policy, it would be worthwhile to have a Congressional statement of intent to use competitive private enterprise to the maximum in the management and execution of government technical projects; and to encourage private investment in space-oriented technologies and businesses wherever possible.

Though many of these fine words are in the NASA Act but have never really been adhered to in practice.

His final words are both a promise and a warning to our generation:

Our Children’s World

To sum up, then, the world is extending its boundaries out from the planet into space: a tremendous enlargement of the area in which man will find resources for living. To explore and tame the new space frontier will require a great technological effort. The very effort will force many new inventions that will not only be useful to us in space, but can greatly advance industrial productivity and levels of living in the United States and the rest of the world.

Yet the ultimate question that faces the citizens at the threshold ofthe Space Age is not whether the technical achievements will be made, but how they will affect human life. Will the drive for space push mankind into a steel trap of regimentation, or will it open up new vistas of creativity and freedom? Will the new, larger world of the future, with its boundaries moving out to the other planets and beyond, be a free world or a regimented world?

The answer to this question, the heritage we leave our children, will be determined to a large degree by how the United States-the world’s leading industrial nation-goes about the exploration and development of space. If we go at it by the route of regimentation and government  enterprise, if we allow the communist powers to establish our course, patterns will be set that will be almost impossible to break. On the other hand, if we use the strength of competitive private enterprise, we will not only advance faster, but will help to assure that the world of our children will be a free world, honoring the dignity and creativity of man.

The above wrap up from Mr. Cordiner is extraordinary and should have resonance today. Since his missive on this subject there is no doubt that the United States has become more regimented and that the federal government, through the power of the purse, has diluted the spirit of private enterprise in the nation.  If you look just at the aerospace industry this is quite evident.  There is almost no entrepreneurial spark left in the major companies who build products for space.  Boeing, Lockheed, ATK, Northrup Grumman, and Raytheon are almost indistinguishable from the design bureaus of Energia, Lavochkin, and other Russian space contractors.  Indeed after the collapse of the Soviet Union the joke in the business has been that the Russians have learned capitalism far better than their American competitors.  You need look no farther than the cost to carry crews to the International Space Station.  To see what happens when a state flagged space vehicle is the only solution you need look no farther than the Space Shuttle or the Orion and SLS vehicles.  How much different might the world be if Rockwell had been allowed to build a privately operated Space Shuttle.

There is hope today that things might change somewhat in the efforts of SpaceX, Sierra Nevada, Blue Origin and even Boeing to provide commercial crew.  However, this effort is under continual assault by congressional interests who are being heavily lobbied by aerospace contractors to force commercial crew into a contract construct centered around traditional cost plus contracts.  This is suicide for any hope of a commercially operated space vehicle, the type that Mr. Cordiner said was essential for a private enterprise approach to space.  The rot, the stench of the corruption of power that has come from 50 years worth of state directed space has left us to where we still have no private human spaceflight.  Within 30 years of the airmail act that enabled private companies to leverage government contracts to develop air travel, we had a global enterprise of competitive companies carrying first thousands and today tens of millions of people around the world at a very low cost in historical terms.

Mr. Cordiner foresaw the worst aspects of the power of federal control and funding for space.  He also saw the promise of space if free enterprise was able to take hold.  His first graphic above has at least for communications and remote sensing, come true.  Today the GEO comsat business, that started out with a government owned company called COMSAT, is a $300 billion dollar a year commercial enterprise with COMSAT now sold off to be Intelsat, a public company.  If we want to open the space frontier, we have a model, we have many models for both failure and success.  It is clear that a federalized program of state designed and controlled vehicles cannot be cost effectively implemented.  It is also clear that with the appropriate support, private enterprise, bringing the discipline of the market to bear like SpaceX and others have, can move America forward in space, and in the finest spirit of America, that of our free enterprise system led by visionaries and capitalists.

Democrats and Republicans in this area are no more than opposite sides of the same corrupt coin, and if we want to change this failure into success we must harken to the wise words of this American titan of business.  We as citizens must also play our role, through the power of the vote, the power of the pen, and the power of our voices.  Our history provides the template for us to save the future….



Posted in Space | 7 Comments

Point and Counter Point on Asteroid Mining…

In the July 29, 2013 issue of Space News there is a point and counter point article by Ambassador Roger Harrison and myself.  Ambassador Harrison takes the negative premise and I take the positive.  Here are links to the abbreviated versions in Space News.

Ambassador Harrison


I would like to present the expanded version of my comments that we originally did as it more fully develops the ideas involved in extraterrestrial mining.  One thing to note is that this was originally going to be published in a defense oriented publication so my style here was to appeal to that demographic.

The Case for Extraterrestrial Mining and Infrastructure Development

Recently a respected colleague, Ambassador Roger Harrison, invited me to work with him on a point counterpoint missive regarding the pros and cons of extraterrestrial mining.  Ambassador Harrison took the counterpoint while the positive argument it is left to me.  The ambassador kindly wrote his first, allowing me, like General Lee at Chancellorsville to counterpunch.  Like General Hooker’s position on May 2nd 1863, Harrison’s position looks unassailable. Rather than the superiority in troops and logistics that Hooker had, Harrison marshals facts and figures as if they were divisions.   Like Lee, let us examine these facts and figures and search for weaknesses or flanks to be turned.

Harrison’s stipulations provide me room to maneuver but he has anchored his position with the economic argument. The strongest argument is that asteroid mining costs will be astronomically high and inexorably fixed.  His example is NASA’s billion dollar plan to return 60 ounces of material from an asteroid.  He concedes that private enterprise may do this 10x better but that even if you grant this, the cost still far outweigh any profit.

Harrison’s detailed arguments are impressive, like the positioning of Hooker’s corps.   Beyond the small arguments of radiation damage, temperature swings, and equipment longevity, his heavy artillery targets the fact that asteroids orbital geometries render opportunities to return materials to the Earth few and far between, making the time cost of money excessive.  Harrison also makes the argument that capital costs are extremely high, reducing the investment net present value.  Finally, he confidently asserts is that it is an illusion that we are running out of resources, there are plentiful supplies, just ready to be wrested from the Earth.

As a further argument in depth Harrison suggests that the cost of some resources, such as diamonds, are controlled by cartels and that even if you solved all the other problems, in the end politics would intervene to buy your loyalty to scarcity in order to maintain profits, negating the transformative value of vastly increased resources.  Like Hooker in the afternoon of May 2nd, Harrison makes the conclusion that there is no escape from his overwhelming argument.  His lines have been dressed, the troops are in place, and like Hooker waiting for Bobby Lee to break his teeth on his lines, the ambassador is confident in victory.  However, are things as they seem?

Cost and Scarcity Argument

The terrestrial mining industry is the obvious analog for in space mining. Mining today is not a pick and shovel operation.  No longer can a grizzled prospector with a good eye easily find an economically viable ore body.  Today mining begins as a complex and expensive adventure of discovery using sophisticated geophysical instruments in search of what is hoped are billions of dollars worth of resources.  After the resource is quantified then several years and billions of dollars are spent in the capital phase of mine development.  Table one gives an indication of the capital cost and timelines for just a few large projects ongoing today:

Minas Rio (Brazil)



Pueblo Viejo JV (Dom Republic


 Pascua Lama (Chile/Argentina)



Cerro Casale (Chile)



Donlin (USA Alaska)



Los Prelambres (Chile)



Quebrada Blanca II (Chile)



Average (billions)


Table 1: A Selection of Large Mine Projects Today

These project costs are representative of the major players such as Barrick Gold and Anglo American.  Following the footnotes reveals that energy, labor, and infrastructure costs have escalated dramatically recently.  Political costs are also rapidly rising due to the greater environmental effects of the mines.  These problems were outlined by Dan Wood, of the W H Bryan Mining & Geology Research Centre, the University of Queensland, Australia in a Distinguished Lecture before the Society of Environmental Geologists entitled Crucial Challenges to Discovery and Mining – Tomorrow’s Deeper Ore Bodies;[8] the opening is reproduced here.

It is stating the obvious to observe that there is no shortage of metal in the Earth’s crust, only of known ore. Unfortunately, ore is becoming increasingly more difficult to define with any certainty. For many metals, what is now considered ore is trending to lower grade and it is becoming more deeply situated. Moreover, as the declining discovery rate over recent decades has shown, it is becoming more difficult to discover an ore body now than it was 30 – 50 years ago.

Compounding the problem for mining companies and their explorers, this is all happening at a time when the demands for many mineral commodities are at all-time highs, and increasing. Without doubt, the world’s exploration teams will require a significantly improved future discovery performance if the present inventories of mineral-commodity ore reserves are not to be seriously depleted as the demand for mineral resources escalates over the coming decades…

Wood goes into the political arguments related to the increasing desire of states to retain more of the earnings from mining of their national resources and increasing costs incurred by environmental activist groups lawsuits. Wood provides crucial insight into the problems confronting terrestrial mining today as demand skyrockets.

GDP growth and the increasing global resource demand is addressed in a report, Iron Ore Outlook 2050, commissioned for the Indian government.[9]  The GDP of the major powers (U.S. Europe, China, India, Japan) is forecast to rise from $48 trillion in 2010 to $149 trillion by 2050.  The report’s substance is that with this massive increase in global GDP, a scramble for global metal resources is inevitable and this report advises India on strategies to obtain their share.

If the trend lines of increasing cost, lower quality ore, and rising demand continue, there are three potential outcomes.  The first is the global collapse forecast for so long by the Limits to Growth school of thought as economically recoverable resources are exhausted.  The second and more likely scenario is a global war over resources driven by increasingly fierce national economic competition.  The third, and most desirable, is to increase the global resource base by the incorporation of the resources of the inner solar system into the terrestrial economy.  What is clear is that increasing cost, scarcity, and political trends point to a time when it may be less expensive to mine resources in space than the Earth. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when, and how.

Architectures for Space Mining

I grant Ambassador Harrison that if we were to take the path toward extraterrestrial mining that he presents as his strawman, the likelihood of success would be small for the reasons that he states.  However, his scenario is based upon decades old approach to the problem.   The argument is a time cost of money proposition related to the time factor and cost of operating at any asteroid.  Due to orbital dynamics the best case is just about a two year cycle of mining and then returning material to Earth.  Planetary Resources seeks to mitigate this by returning an object to the Earth for mining.  However, this has its own time cost of money and large political issues as well.

We need look no farther than our own Moon to see a means to escape this quandary.  Following are some ideas for architecture implementation that lay to rest the idea that any such effort’s costs will be astronomically high and inexorably fixed.

Lunar Resources of Asteroidal Origin

A 2011 Science Daily article provides the succinct answer for the Earth, and by extension, the Moon regarding asteroidal resource availability.

Ultra high precision analyses of some of the oldest rock samples on Earth by researchers at the University of Bristol provides clear evidence that the planet’s accessible reserves of precious metals are the result of a bombardment of meteorites more than 200 million years after Earth was formed.[10]

The Moon was subjected to this same bombardment and it is reasonable to extend the idea that these same metals are there. This thesis is developed in my chapter for the book “Return to the Moon”.[11] Thus, I stipulate that a large, highly fractured multibillion ton resource of a metal asteroid exists within 25 km of the lunar north pole.  The Apollo samples confirm that the lunar highlands have high concentrations of meteoric metals.

Building the Infrastructure, Profitably

Common to the development in large scale mining today is the provision of unrelated infrastructure.  Barrick and Goldcorp are building a $300 million dollar power plant to provide power to their operations at he Pueblo Viejo gold mine in the Dominican Republic.  The same will be true on the Moon.  I choose the lunar north pole as a base of operations because along the rim of the crater Whipple, which is on the rim of the crater Peary, there are four areas totaling approximately 10 km2 that are at a “peak of eternal light”.  At least seasonally and perhaps all year this area is in sunlight 100% of the time.  This eliminates the need for nuclear power, at least initially. Using aerospace grade solar cells I can provide about 545 watts of power per m2.  After conversion losses this is about 500 w/m2 of AC power.  This gives a potential of 500 megawatts per km2.

With the SpaceX Falcon Heavy (F9H) I can place about 6,000 kg of payload on the Moon.  This is enough for a 125 kilowatt powerlander, along with a laser communications system, a petabyte of computer server, and at least 10 small (30 kg each) advanced rovers.  The F9H cost is $83m, and the cost of the lander with the desired payload is about $500m.  I can immediately generate revenue from the use of the laser communications system.  Utterly secure, 25 gigabits/sec communications with an unhackable data server would easily be worth $150-250m/year in revenue to the U.S. government, based on the cost of the Advanced EHF and other wideband military satellites.  The yearly cost to support this is $1-2m dollars, thus my first infrastructure payload for mining is already generating strongly positive cash flow.

Many of the issues that Harrison pointed to do not exist at the lunar poles.  Thermal gradients are small, hovering around -40c.  The dust and grit are there, but not any more than at a terrestrial mine.  The rovers use microwaves to sinter landing pads for more powerlanders.  Another four launches and units and $1.5b later (multiple units cost drop dramatically in aerospace), I now have .6 of a megawatt of power on the Moon, along with a lot of equipment that since it is modular, can be reconfigured on the fly for different tasks.  Since we are 356,000 km from the Earth, we can operate 24/7 using a mix of autonomy and telepresence.

Changing the Game (The Stonewall Jackson Effect)

Using swarming technology the 50 rovers work as a group on various tasks.  The landers propulsion systems are removed and structural parts not needed by the powerlanders anymore are reconfigured into a single stage to orbit system that can lift or land more than 30 tons of payload.  We use the fifth propulsion system tanks to store water.  Some of the rovers are designed to scoop up regolith laden with water that is only 8.5 km from the base site.  This water is processed and transferred to the tank of lander 5 where it is electrolyzed.  Some of the rovers are configured to carry this hydrogen and oxygen to the SSTO lander, which over a month’s time, is filled up.

Now another payload from Earth is delivered, a 12 ton payload that meets the SSTO lander in lunar orbit.  Additionally, the five ton F9H upper stage is grabbed by rovers reconfigured to this task and attached to the SSTO lander.  The SSTO lander now lands a total of almost 17 tons of payload.  The payload mix is radically different as well.  The payloads are large 3D printers configured for metals and basalts, an induction furnace, fuel cells, large electric motors, computers, and many other parts needed to build larger surface systems, including advanced robotics designed for multiple tasks.  The entire cost of this payload is no more than the half billion for the powerlanders as we are not shipping assembled systems but subsystems and parts.  These modular parts will be assembled into systems on the Moon via telepresence.

The End of the Beginning and the Beginning of the Future

Now we have the equipment to build large surface systems for regolith processing, water harvesting, and metals processing.   Mass drivers can be built and payloads returned to the Earth.  To this point we are beginning the mining process and providing investment return. This is done by integrating technologies that are just now starting to change the world here, and by thinking differently about how to do mining.  Another key element is to move as much infrastructure development in situ rather than shipping everything up from the Earth as each kilogram saved lowers costs. The lunar north pole location allows continuous shipping of finished high value metals and products.  The diversity of resources on the Moon is far greater than on an asteroid, bringing further opportunity for profit.  Proximity to the Earth brings other opportunities for applications bringing near term profit.

Have we proven the economic viability of extraterrestrial mining?  Not quite, but we have shown that we can envision a way to lower cost and bring early cash flow by moving the crux of the asteroid mining proposition to the Moon, which is the final refutation astronomically high and inexorably fixed costs position.  In terms of cost, the numbers for lunar industrialization and mining are very comparable to a large terrestrial mine project.  The architecture ideas put forth have comparable cost and provide an investment return within 48 months of project start.

Thus like Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville, we have declined a direct confrontation, yet provided a victory over the status quo, by showing that solutions are possible that have not been thought of by the generals of the political science world. It will take a book to develop these thoughts properly and perhaps it is time to do so.

What about the asteroids?  I agree that without extensive infrastructure development, mining the asteroids is an extremely expensive proposition today.  However, the development of a lunar infrastructure to mine asteroidal materials there and develop an industrial base is a major step in the right direction to lower these costs.  It is a fallacious argument that our move into space is a question of the Moon, Mars, or asteroids.  These destinations are mutually supportive and their economic development will transform our global civilization as much as the development of the new world 500 years ago.

[7] ibid

[10] University of Bristol. “Where does all Earth’s gold come from? Precious metals the result of meteorite bombardment, rock analysis finds.” ScienceDaily, 9 Sep. 2011. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

[11] Return To the Moon; Apogee Book Series, ISBN-10: 1894959329

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , | 67 Comments

Moon, Mars, or Asteroids, Which is the Best Destination for Solar System Development?

Author’s Preface

This is a 5,000 word blog post.  I ask you who read to read all of this so that you will get the gestalt that is being conveyed.  This may be the first chapter of a forthcoming book on the subject of the economic development of the solar system.  Consider it a sneak peek.


The Moon!, no  Mars!, no Asteroids!   Here we are in the second decade of the 21st century and in the NASA, space advocacy, and commercial space worlds one of these three destinations are being touted (largely to the exclusion of others) for their value to science,  human exploration, and economic development, but which one of them is the most valuable, the most deserving, of our attention?  This argument is taking place today in the vacuum of space policy that we currently live in without any unifying principles or policy to inform our decisions.  Without a guiding policy and sense of purpose that encompasses more than narrow interests and singular destinations it is exceedingly likely that the human exploration and development of the solar system will continue to be an expensive and futile exercise.  We must develop a firm moral, technological, and fiscal foundation for this outward move that will attract capital investment, spur technology development, and encourage innovation in a manner that people can understand, believe in, and thus financially support.

Policy, What Policy?

There is no coherent policy within the American government today (which is more than just NASA) and this is something that we must change.  In 2005 the Defense Department’s spurred an excellent effort to support the development of a Space Power Theory that would provided the intellectual underpinning of a coherent policy encompassing and integrating space into the larger realm of our national economic and security fabric.  This multivolume set of essays was a strong step in this direction but its publishing was delayed and has as much as possible been ignored since its publication.  However, it is there and is worthy of discussion and integration into our national space policy.

We did have a national policy as enunciated by Dr. John Marburger in his memorable 2006 Goddard Memorial speech but that was cast away as quickly as the entire Constellation implementation plan (and the VSE before it).  NASA’s current strategy of sacrificing everything to a few flagship science missions and a behemoth recreation of a Saturn V class heavy lifter is one that creates large targets for budget cutters.  Indeed the National Academies has a public comment period open at this time and one of the questions is whether or not the nation should have a human spaceflight program.  The current NASA plan is not based upon sound policy considerations.  Bluntly, the asteroid mission was chosen as NASA did not have the money to pay for an Altair class lunar lander under the Constellation program, and with up to seven heavy lift launches per mission (the last NASA Mars Design Reference Mission), Mars is simply unaffordable the NASA way with a major shift in national priorities.

Most if not all of NASA’s plans today are based upon an ad hoc collection of scientific exploration for the sake of science and whatever architecture they can cobble together with human spaceflight funding scraps congress is willing to fund.  The current NASA administrator declares that Mars is his goal but there are no funds to support the idea nor is a rationale provided other than “we want to go”.  NASA recently has adopted the retrieval of an asteroid as a first step in exploration whereupon congress declares it dead on arrival and a faction attempts to pass a bill mandating lunar exploration.  This does not a policy make.  A sound national policy would provide the rationale for exploration in general which would give our lawmakers a moral foundation whereby to  reallocate national financial priorities to provide more funding for space.  Additionally, the policy would incentivize and enable private enterprise to take steps on their own without relying on the national purse.



As stated before, in the government world Mars is hopelessly underfunded for the architecture that NASA wants.  NASA is also unwilling to consider alternate architectures that do not require a massive heavy lift launch vehicle.  In the commercial world there is no real policy guidance but there is hope.  There are those, like Elon Musk, Inspiration Mars,  Mars One and Buzz Aldrin who are in one form or another focused on Mars and its eventual colonization.  This is good in that while it is not a policy, there is an aspiration that humans should colonize Mars.  However, with this aspiration there needs to be a means to sustain such a colony and little thought has been given to that problem.  The most obvious approach of direct supply from the Earth is extremely expensive and time limited (due to the two year gap between launch windows) and the requirement for heavy lift, even if you have a fully reusable launch vehicle from the Earth.  The cycling Earth/Mars spacecraft advocated by Dr. Buzz Aldrin makes a lot of sense but lamentably there is little move to adopt it as an architectural centerpiece by anyone.  Any sustainable architecture for human exploration and/or colonization must go beyond throw away vehicles and throw away plans and there is little evidence of this being considered.


There has been a lot of recent activity on this front.  Again NASA’s plan is woefully incomplete and underfunded while also requiring the heavy lift launch vehicle.  The recent change to bringing an asteroid back has many meritorious aspects but the NASA administrator has already killed most of them with recent statements.  With much fanfare a commercial splash was made last year by a company theoretically backed by several billionaires called Planetary Resources.  Their idea is to go grab asteroids and haul them back to Earth orbit for exploitation.  An interim plan calls for them to gain experience and provide a service to humanity by building small satellites carrying telescopes that can find Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that could harm the Earth.  Another effort formed basically in response to the Planetary Resources announcement came from another group called Deep Space Industries (DSI).  DSI has an even more ambitious plan to go and mine asteroids In Situ.  They begin by flying inexpensive nano satellites from the Earth to go there and characterize the ones that they are interested in.  However, in both cases there seems to be a significant gap between step 1 and step 2 that is not well illustrated or costed.  The ideas are great but those gaps….


NASA still has a love/hate/hate relationship with the Moon and since the president’s unfortunate choice of words “been there and done that” that destination has been deemphasized by the agency.  There is a lot of interest (most of it outside of the U.S.) from government agencies and some activity from the commercial realm.  First off as most people know there is the Google Lunar X Prize.  This effort provides a $15-$25m prize for the first commercial landing on the Moon.  The second is a new group called Golden Spike, led by former NASA administrator for Science Dr. Allen Stern.  There have been other commercial groups that have come on gone over the years as well, with varying business plans (grandiose or not) on how to make money at or on the Moon.  The most serious efforts today are still those by governments, such as China who seeks to put a lander on the Moon in 2013.  Though the Chinese are working in their normal methodical way to accomplish their goals that they claim to lead to a human landing, there is little indication that from a policy perspective, their efforts extend beyond science and one upping the Americans.  Europe has many meetings about lunar development, and one study that was never published but that I was allowed to see, was pretty remarkable in terms of what Europe, if it was going to do anything, well articulated their reasons for doing so and not just in terms of science.  None of the government plans that I have seen or read or viewed online for the Moon recently have a purpose beyond playing scientist on the Moon.

Developing a Policy for All Destinations

Policies are developed to provide guidance to our legislative and executive, based on human aspiration, to provide a sense of purpose and goals for the benefit of the nation and its people.  For example the westward expansion of the United States was a formal economic, political, and security policy that was implemented over a century by many successive administrations and congresses supported by the people to enable the growth of the nation.  The post WWII policy of containment was implemented  by both military and economic means against the Soviet Union over decades as a means to provide greater security for the nation.  The post WWII infrastructure development of the Interstate highway system, the national airport infrastructure, and waterway development was developed to foster commerce and enable further economic growth.  The American interstate highway system was put in place over thirty years and fifty seven years later is still growing.  These policies had purposes and a goals that fit within the larger context of providing for economic development as well as national security.

Our early space policy had a mostly strategic security purpose and goal, to beat the Russians to the Moon as a competitive alternative to war in a nuclear age.  After that it was to develop a reusable space transportation system who’s stated purpose was to lower costs and thus open the space frontier to new applications. However, the Shuttle’s development was finally funded when the United States Air Force desired design changes were implemented, bringing the purpose back to national security. When the International Space Station was finally pushed forward to construction justified with a strategic security purpose to tie a post Soviet world to the west and employ scientists and engineers that might otherwise work for others on weapons of mass destruction.  These were concrete purposes with goals that could be accomplished but with the national security focus rather than its value to economic growth. Thus American space policy has been programmatic rather than a core value for economic growth and a long term national sense of purpose.

In the renewed era of exploration that came with the Bush administration’s announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) in 2005 there was finally an articulation of a long term policy to guide that exploration that tied space to its larger role in contributing to economic development by incorporating the solar system into our economic sphere.  However, as NASA unfolded their interpretation of the VSE it transformed into the Mars science program with a touch and go visit to the Moon on the way rather than an essential part of the national fabric.  This was best explained by Dr. John Marburger in his Goddard Symposium speech in 2008 where he expanded on statements from his 2006 speech:

While “the significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations” is to some extent “to serve as steppingstones to that goal,” that is not the whole story, and the part that is missing is the lesson of all the activity in Low Earth Orbit. What are we going to do with those stepping stones once we have planted flags on Mars and beyond? I read in these points a narrowing, not an expansion, of the vision of space exploration. They ignore the very likely possibility that operations on the Moon “and other intermediate destinations” will “serve national and international interests” other than science, but including science as an important objective. Our current experience with space, dramatically portrayed by the existence today of a commercial space industry, is that it is useful in ways not imagined even by the early visionaries.

Dr. Marburger was referring to a set of policy points developed at a Stanford event that he had just attended.  These points were:

  • “It is time to go beyond LEO with people as explorers. The purpose of sustained human exploration is to go to Mars and beyond. The significance of the Moon and other intermediate destinations is to serve as steppingstones on the path to that goal.”
  • “Human space exploration is undertaken to serve national and international interests. It provides important opportunities to advance science, but science is not the primary motivation.”
  • “Sustained human exploration requires enhanced international collaboration and offers the United States an opportunity for global leadership.”

Contrast this with the succinct Marburger statement of American space policy from his 2006 Goddard speech:

As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere, or not. Our national policy, declared by President Bush and endorsed by Congress last December in the NASA authorization act, affirms that, “The fundamental goal of this vision is to advance U.S. scientific, security, and economic interests through a robust space exploration program.” So at least for now the question has been decided in the affirmative.

The Marburger point is what are we going to do when we get to these places, indeed what is our purpose for doing this?  Marburger states indirectly says in another part of the 2208 speech that unless we make these larger connections all we will do is litter the solar system with monuments to our futility.  In a policy sense the answer is that science alone has never garnered that critical mass of support that led to sustainable funding and thus policies that are built only around science are unlikely to be successful, which has been the record of the last 30 years.  Other than the very real threat of asteroid impacts there are no direct national security connotations to this exploration either other than as a subsidy to the national aerospace infrastructure, which also has been an unconvincing argument and thus no sustainable funding. We must go beyond the term “exploration”.  Exploration carries with it connotations of impermanence, of a transient visitation of these destinations, without larger purpose.   It goes to something a wag once said about Dr. Carl Sagan’s approach to space, which was effectively “look but don’t touch”.

Interestingly almost all of the commercial and quasi commercial aspirations for the Moon, Mars, and Asteroids developed by interested citizen groups/companies/foundations are keyed toward economic development and colonization, the same rationale that gained the support of the government and the people sustained for over a century of growth.  However, these grassroots aspirations have been a very disjointed affair, only looking at their favored destination.  Is there a way to tie the destinations together into a cohesive policy  for long term economic growth and national prosperity (and world prosperity by extension)?   Other than Marburger and Bush in recent times, no one in government has been willing to take this step of leadership and proclaim this as a purpose for the nation.  At the end of the day, if we as interested citizens can come up with a policy and sense of purpose in this realm we follow in the footsteps of those in our history like Fulton, Whitney, Huntington and others who gain popular financial and ultimately political support for our vision.

American History as a Guide

In American history there are analogs to the limited flags and footprints explorations vs an integrated approach that leads to settlement.  Every school child knows about Lewis and Clark’s expedition from the Mississippi to the Oregon coast.  Very few know that this was one in just a series of explorations funded by congress and carried out by the army.  Here is an excerpt from the book “Empire Express” the story of the intercontinental railroad, from U.S. Army Lieutenant Zebulon Pike’s expedition into the southern portion of the Louisiana purchase, and for whom Pike’s peak is named…

“In various places there were tracts of many leagues, where the wind had thrown up sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean’s rolling wave, and on which not a spear of vegetable matter existed”  Pike’s visions of sand dunes, pathless wastes, and sterile soils were reported, widely read, and faithfully believed by geographers.  The myth became innocently embellished by subsequent visitors, especially those in the party of Major Stephen H. Long, who traversed the whole area in 1820.  It was reported to be an unfit residence for any but a nomad population…forever to remain the unmolested haunt of the native hunter, the bison, and the jackal.”

The area described is encompassed by the states of Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.  There is a huge difference in viewpoint when you are merely scouting out an area versus taking the steps to develop the new territories.  Pike was right in 1806, but of course by the time the transcontinental railroad was built through this same area 60 years later the world had changed.  The development of the transcontinental railroad for Colorado enabled the prairie and mountain states to reach their potential just as it was the railroad infrastructure that transformed California’s San Joaquin valley from a desert to the nation’s fruit basket and vegetable garden.

Today the same type of negative stereotypes that were in evidence in the early 1800′s abounds today for space. Then it was skepticism about steam power, railroads, balloons and aeronauts.  Today it is the “impossibility” of the economic development of the solar system.  The difference is that then we went forward anyway as the potential benefits to society far outweighed the risks.  The same is true today about space.  There are no miracles that need to occur to successfully develop the Moon, Mars, or the entirety of the asteroid belt.  What is needed is will, the will to look beyond the objections and the naysayers to take and overcome the obstacles that this development entails.  If it succeeds we have moved humanity into a completely new level of intellectual, technological, and spiritual development.  Without it we face a future that looks increasingly dark, with governments chipping away at liberty under the pretense of providing safety until we once again enter an era of almost universal slavery, which was the lot of mankind before the age of exploration, enlightenment, and industrialization.

An Integrated Approach To Exploration, Development, and Settlement 

It is my strong opinion that the singular destination approach or even multiple destinations not integrated with the others in a strategic manner based upon economic and human development is a recipe for ultimate failure.  Mars is only sustainable by itself at enormous expense, one unlikely to be favored by governments or private interests with the problems the world faces providing for 9 billion people by 2050.  Asteroid mining has little chance at profit without an robust, active inner solar system infrastructure to support it.  Lunar mining and development also has no long term purpose outside of feeding the maw of the terrestrial economy as the resources there are ultimately limited just as those of the Earth are.  It is time to unabashedly advocate for the expansion of mankind into the inner solar system for the purpose of Exploration, Development, and Settlement (the EDS policy).

With the EDS policy the Moon, Mars, asteroids and even free space become part of a greater whole of the economic development of the solar system for the good of ourselves and all mankind.  Thus the EDS policy has a fundamental moral aspect to it in that it is presented as an alternative to the current seeming direction of the world toward war as we fight over the resources of our single planet.  This war is already underway in the economic sense with the increasingly fierce competition for energy and other resources between China, India, Europe, and Japan.

We live in a global civilization of over 7 billion people, which will expand to over 9 billion before plateauing in mid century.  While American politicians are not paying attention to what this means, the rest of the world is noticing.  GDP growth and increasing global resource demand is addressed in a report, Iron Ore Outlook 2050, commissioned for the Indian government.[1]  The GDP of the major powers (U.S. Europe, China, India, Japan) is forecast to rise from $48 trillion in 2010 to $149 trillion by 2050.  The report’s substance is that with this massive increase in global GDP, an intensifying scramble for metal resources is inevitable.

If the trend of resource consumption demand increase continues unabated, there are three likely potential outcomes.  The first is collapse, forecast by the Limits to Growth school of thought.  The second, and more likely scenario is fierce national economic competition leading to wars over diminishing resources.  The third, and most desirable, is to increase the global resource base by the economic and industrial development of the inner solar system.  Thus by this alternative that lessens tensions by expanding our planetary resource base we have the moral foundation for the development of the inner solar system.  How does the Moon, Mars, and Asteroids fit into this gestalt?  That is the question.

The EDS Moon

In the EDS policy we play upon the strengths of the three principal destinations and add free space as well.  We begin with the Moon first simply because it is three days away from us and has trillions of dollars worth of resources in iron, aluminum, titanium, thorium, uranium, silicon, oxygen, water, and the fragments of billions of asteroids that have puckered its surface over the last four billion years.  The current science based missions are wholly inadequate to do more than scratch the surface of quantifying the resource base of the Moon.   Almost all of our current remote sensing data on the Moon is calibrated against the ground truth of the Apollo missions.  This leaves vast room for interpretation of remote sensing data.  It took over a decade for the preliminary yet to many of us definitive detection of the water resources from Clementine and Lunar Prospector to be validated by the current generation of missions.  Thus we need to immediately begin a concerted campaign of wheels on the ground robotic prospectors going to the locations of water and concentrated resources of thorium, titanium, asteroid fragments and other remotely sensed resources of the Moon.

This turns the Moon and a polar orbit around it into the manufacturing center of the inner solar system.  Single stage to orbit is trivial on the moon having been demonstrated by NASA in 1969.  A study that we did indicated that the descent stage of the NASA proposed Altair lander could, if refueled from lunar water, would be able to lift 25 tons of load into lunar orbit and still have enough fuel to return to the surface.  The vehicle used, if based on the same RL-10′s of the Altair could have any shape, including a square flat plate with engines on the corners to take up large payloads manufactured on the Moon, such as habitation modules, tanks for fuel, tanks for water storage, and for rotating systems for an Aldrin cycler.  After a modicum of infrastructure is set up this would be far easier to do than launching everything from the Earth and putting it only a little more than half way out of the 11.2 km/sec gravity well.  Expensive gear like electronics, computers, life support systems and the like could be delivered to lunar orbit and integrated into these systems.

Thus we have the enabling factor for the true exploitation of the asteroids and the settlement of Mars, which are true interplanetary space ships.  It is stupid to try and build such vehicles on the Earth and loft them as they are intrinsically limited by the fairings of launch vehicles and even NASA’s design reference missions required as many as eight billion dollar heavy lift launches, which are 80% fuel for climbing out of the depths of our gravity well besides the costs of the payloads.  There is not one thing that we truly lack in technology to do this other than maybe thorium reactors.  We begin by not needing them by landing at the lunar north pole where the sun shines almost 100% of the time.  With vehicles such as this we now have the means for the next steps.

EDS Mars

Mars comes next in this scenario as we now have the means with the lunar constructed space ships to colonize Mars in a sustainable manner.  This means sending five to ten people at a time to begin life there.  A critical technology that must be developed for Mars is nuclear power.  Sunlight is only 60% as bright on Mars as it is on the Earth and Mars rotates like the Earth, further diminishing the value of solar power.  An advanced civilization on Mars is likely to need 10-50 kilowatts per person per day in order to live beyond mere existence on Mars.  Designers for the most part gloss over this need but it is critical.  The resources of thorium on the Moon are very interesting and there are five concentrations in craters there as indicated on this map from Dr. Paul Spudis.  Thorium reactors can be an export from the Moon to provide megawatts of power for space ships and to be delivered to Mars to provide power on the surface there.

With plentiful nuclear power the economy of Mars can begin to take shape by exploiting the resources of that planet which are far greater than the resources of the Moon.  These resources will mostly be used indigenously to build structures, build farms, develop resources, and form the foundation of an advanced industrial economy for the third home of mankind.  For this economy to flourish as well as to provide resources to the Earth, the near Earth asteroids as well as those beyond Mars must begin to be exploited.  This is where the Moon and Mars work together to enable the development of these vast resources.

EDS Asteroids

With true Aldrin cyclers for Mars in operation the shipyards in lunar orbit turn their sights to developing mining craft for the asteroids.  Due to the simple physics of the orbits of the Earth and asteroids you have two choices.  You either visit one for a short period of time and return to the Earth with a wait of two years before you can do your next visit, or you do a two year trip to the asteroid.  It makes little sense to spend enormous sums of money to visit an asteroid for the first time and a short stay and expect to make a profit.  This may be possible for an extinct comet for water, but these are rare and generally take a lot more energy to reach and return from, raising costs.  A two year mission makes a lot of sense but you can’t just take a spam in the can type of spacecraft to go out there and do this complex operation.  The alternative approach pushed by some to bring these objects back to Earth orbit is extremely expensive, time consuming, and again requires a lot of launches from the Earth to be able to efficiently exploit these resources.

A far better approach would be to build specific fully reusable space ships at the lunar shipyards specifically designed and outfitted to this task and take them to the desired asteroids.  Again building these on the Earth and launching them from that gravity well is foolish, only possible in instances where you are doing the flags and footprints and don’t care about follow up.  It is extremely important to have these specially designed spacecraft as they can very effectively deal with the long stay times and have large tanks that can bring back vast stores of water and other valuable quantities.  At first this water is for the Moon as its water resources are very constrained.  However, after that supply chain is developed this water can be brought to geosynchronous orbit or even to low orbit, which will fundamentally change the economics of Earth launch.  As the water flow increases, prices for commerce decrease to the Moon, Mars, and the Earth, which starts a further virtuous cycle of economic growth.  This effects and enables the development of free space platforms up to and including O’Neil type free space colonies.

The Gestalt

 ge·stalt: An organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.

This short missive brings together the gestalt for the economic development of the inner solar system.  It is not a question of the Moon, Mars, or the Asteroids, indeed to argue for or against one to the exclusion of the others is to miss the point!  It is all of the above or we are just wasting our time and we might as well start the wars early and get them over with.  This is slightly tongue in cheek but what direction do we want to go for the future of mankind?  There is a way out of the dark future that many see coming toward us.  The economic development of space is a strong contender for that path.  Even if the future is not darkened by war, we will have 9 billion souls on the Earth soon and we want all of our brothers and sisters of the Earth to live good lives, not lives steeped in poverty.  There are those that think that our age is one of excess, destined to exhaust itself soon unless we dial back civilization to something that can be operated with solar panels and wind turbines.  It is simply not possible to operate a planetary civilization of 9 billion plus people with low energy multiple sources and thus we face a decision, backward or forward?

There are those that will say what is written here is the impossible dream of the dreamer.  As a technologist that has worked this issue for twenty five years now I can say with absolute certainty that the above is achievable with our level of technology today.  The question is not should we do this, the question is how do we enable this to be done?  The goal is a prosperous 21st century and beyond for our human family and to extend that family’s reach to begin the long march to the stars.  NASA’s Kepler has revealed literally thousands of candidate worlds out there, a thought that should amaze each and every one of us and make us look forward to the future, not dread it.  The future is before us, ready for us.  It is time to make policies and plans that will bring this about and I can think of no greater legacy to leave mankind than for the United States of America and her citizens to lead this march.  We still have a destiny if we will just lift up our eyes, and ask as Bobby Kennedy once did.. “Why Not?”

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , , | 204 Comments

Buzz Aldrin’s Mission to Mars, A Book Review

I am reading the new book Mission to Mars, My Vision for Space Exploration, by Buzz Aldrin.  The book is a very good read, and for those of us who know Buzz, it is pretty much as we expect and have heard from Buzz for years.  There is some good information in the book and it is hoped that this will help to stimulate discussion on the subject.  Following is my blow by blow review of the book while I read it….

The book opens with Buzz and president Obama on Air Force 1 headed to Florida for Obama’s one major speech on space.  If you are a Mars or a Lunar advocate the speech was not satisfying as the focus of the speech was away from the Moon, but not to Mars, rather to an asteroid mission for humans.  Those of us who know some of the inner workings understand that this is because there is no budget for any lander, lunar or otherwise.

Buzz does help to perpetuate the common myth and wrong interpretation of the Augustine 2008 commission that the Bush plan for the Vision for Space Exploration which morphed into the Constellation program was underfunded (p94).  You have to look no farther than the NASA Concept Exploration and Refinement (CE&R) contracts of 2005 to see the original plans did not require this level of funding.  In searching, I find it amazing that you cannot find the CE&R contract reports online easily anymore.  However, this AIAA paper goes into some of the issues regarding how architecture choices drive the cost.  The Constellation program that came after the departure of Bush’s handpicked leader (Sean O’Keefe), requiring multiple heavy lift vehicles and a Battlestar Galactica style lunar lander that killed the program and this must be repeated every time the Bush “unaffordable” myth is trotted out.

Buzz opens with a call for something that I completely agree with, which is his Aldrin cycler design.  The Aldrin cycler is a true spaceship that continuously operates in space, cycling between the Earth and the Moon or the Earth and Mars.  While others came up with this as well Buzz has done the heavy lifting to put this concept out over the last 20-30 years.  He makes a great quote here… (p37)

Long ago the sound barrier was penetrated and tamed.  Now we need to break through the reusability barricade, one that has been perpetuated, in my view, by the greed of government bureaucracy and corporate industry…

The problem is that he is relying on these same people and on positive political forces to set up a sustained vision for Mars colonization by humans.  Our politicians today are for the most part incapable of understanding the value of this all important vision that Buzz and the rest of us have in this area.

Where I disagree with him, as he knows, is in his blunt evaluation that the Moon should be some part of an international camping trip where we bring all of the countries of the world together.  He uses the Antarctic research sites as his analogs frequently but the fact of the matter is that this internationalism does not work even there.  While there is a lot of cooperation, each nation has its own facility.  Even on ISS the Japanese consider their Kibo module to be sovereign Japanese territory.  What makes me crazy is that Buzz says this… (p89)

…In short, our celestial neighbor in gravitational lock, the moon, can be tapped to help create a sustainable economic, industrial, and science generating expansion into space…

YES!, however Buzz wants to hand it off to the rest of the world?  Inconceivable!

Buzz Basics in Technology

Buzz has a laundry list of technologies that are a good start for Mars.

Aerocapture, which is using the atmosphere of planet to slow a spacecraft down.

Radiation protection,  we don’t want to fry the humans, which is going to get more difficult with the coming extremely low solar activity over the next decades.

Life support, self evident yep and trying it out on ISS makes perfect sense…

Redundant Systems, absolutely, as well as advanced diagnostics and repair!

Inflatable structures, a good thing to have but possibly distracting

Landing systems, absolutely as gravity sucks and takes a lot of fuel as well as precision navigation for landing as he states.

However, this for Mars this is far more about the mission there than actually staying there.  To add to his list.

Energy Systems, the life and death of developing Mars is how much electrical and thermal energy is available.

In Situ Resources, that this keeps getting left off the list is inconceivable!

In Situ Manufacturing, this is what turns a science project into mankind’s second home.

Robotics, mankind’s ultimate force multiplier for off planet civilization.

Buzz goes on to talk about some initial flights to Mars and some interesting information that I did not know, which is that the Martian moon Deimos has ten months a year in sunlight.  This helps in the beginning with solar power.  Buzz has some interesting graphics related to his plans in the color plates but unfortunately you need a magnifying glass to read them.  I found a link on his site to at least one of them though.

Homesteading the Red Planet

I absolutely love the idea that Mars exploration and development by humans be a one way affair.  After first hearing about this idea a few years ago I have grown to completely embrace it as a core value myself for Mars.  Finally on page 174 Buzz mentions the word ISRU, without which colonizing Mars is a fools errand.  In a very interesting observation Buzz recounts that that Bruce Mackenzie’s team at the Mars Foundation has investigated making plastics like ethylene, derived from the atmosphere of Mars along with hydrogen.  That is very interesting (p181).

Buzz talks about Bob Zubrin’s Mars Direct architecture (p184) which I very much like as well as the use of in-situ resources starts in the beginning and is a core value, rather than something that comes later.  This page is also where I get irked in that Buzz just offhandedly states (from Mars Direct) that;

In the first year of implementation, and Earth return vehicle is launched to Mars, arriving six months later.  Upon landing on the surface, a rover is deployed that contains the nuclear reactors necessary to generate rocket fuel for the return trip.

This is another version of “then a miracle occurs” which so irks me so much when the development of Mars is discussed.


As a fellow space architect I really like Buzz’s book.  It does not go much farther than other books of the genre but since it is written by one of the surviving 12 Apollo surface astronauts it carries his significant weight behind it.  I have always admired Buzz over the years for his single minded dedication to teaching the world of the continuing value of the human exploration and development of space.  While he and I disagree on what the initial target should be we share a common goal.  I know that this book is written for the general reader and that details are to be left for interactions with stakeholders and politicians.  However, I must discuss one final lament about the book.

What is needed now is a practical roadmap to getting to Mars and colonizing it in a sustainable manner.  It is quite clear that unless a miracle occurs our current generation of political leadership does not think far enough ahead to understand the macro-societial benefits that Buzz talks about.  This is tragic in that in microcosm the development of the Moon or Mars fits within a macrocosm of discussion related to our own terrestrial civilization.  The problem of colonizing and building a sustainable Martian civilization has many commonalities with building a sustainable planetary civilization here on the Earth.

The first and most important resource for Mars or the Earth is energy.  This is glossed over for Mars (just deploy the reactors!) or misunderstood here on the Earth (green fixations that solar panels and wind turbines can power a planetary civilization of 9  billion people).  An in depth discussion of the Energy required to support a prosperous colony of 50, 100, or a thousand people on Mars is desperately required as it will start to bring clarity to Martian development as well as sustainable development here on the Earth.  We need a discussion of how a manufacturing infrastructure would be set up on Mars as without it homesteading Mars is impossible.  Then an examination in detail of what we know about the resources and how they would be developed.  In the end this is why I advocate the Moon in that in my opinion it is the combination of lunar and martian industrialization that are going to be the critical advances that help us to build a sustainable and prosperous planetary civilization here on the Earth.

Buzz I salute you for your book and that it opens the door for a new generation to learn about Mars and why it is important.  However, like Moses at Rephidim where Aaron and Hur had to hold up his arms in order for the children of Israel to win a fight, we need to hold his arms up and help to flesh out the vision presented.  There have been so many crucial advances in the past five years in the areas of robotics, 3D printing/manufacturing, and computer resources that simply must be integrated into our planning for Mars and the Moon.  Time for another book I guess!

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , | 32 Comments

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, Original Data For Science Posterity

Note:  This is a cross post of an original article of mine that was posted on the site today.  Thanks to Anthony Watts and his readers for their support.


The foundation of all observational science is data.  This is true whether the data is temperature measurements from ground networks, satellites, or any other thing in nature that can be observed, quantified, and recorded.  After data is recorded it must be archived so that future researchers who seek to extend or question conclusions drawn from that data can go back to the original source to replicate results.  This is a fundamental premise of the scientific method, without it we can make no reliable statements about nature and call it science.  This is true whether or not the subject is climate change, planetary motion, or any other scientific discipline.  This missive is about the supremely important subject of data archival and how you the reader can support our lunar data archival project.  First a historical digression.

The Importance of the Recording and Archival of Scientific Data

In the era before computers and the Internet, data archival was the responsibility of the scientist who obtained and recorded scientific observations.  Johannes Kepler used Tycho Brahe’s archived records of meticulous observations of planetary motion to calculate the elliptical orbit of Mars and thus developed his laws of planetary motion.  After the laws were published, anyone could check Kepler by going to the observatory and do their own calculations based on the archived data.  The archived work of Brahe and Kepler underpinned Sir Isaac Newton’s formulation of his theory of gravity.  Without archived data, Newton would have had no basis for his calculations.  A scientist’s archives, stored at institutes of learning, has been the standard method of preserving data and results until the era of the computer.

Data Archiving in the Modern Age

In recent times a structural deficiency has emerged in the sciences related to the storage, archiving, and the availability of original data.  Beginning in the world war two years and exploding afterward, scientific data in many fields of the physical sciences began to be obtained though electronic means.  Strip charts, oscilloscopes, and waveforms from analog and digital sensors began to be fed into calculating programs, and results obtained.  These results were and are used to develop and or confirm hypotheses.  This exploded in the 1960’s and has continued to where today it is ubiquitous.  However, there has been a decoupling in the scientific process regarding the recording and archiving of data and the ability to replicate results.  The following example is just one of a legion of problems that exist in this realm.

In the 1960’s when data was obtained and fed into the computer, the data was often truncated due to memory limitations and computational speed of computers of the era.  For example a paper was published by NASA as NASA TM X-55954 entitled:

The Radiation balance of the Earth-Atmosphere System Over Both Polar Regions Obtained From Radiation Measurements of the Nimbus II Meteorological Satellite;

This is probably the first definitive study of the radiation balance of the Earth-Atmosphere system published in the space era.  Figure 1 is a figure from that paper:

Earth Radiation Budget Derived from Nimbus II MRIR Instrument 1966

Figure 1:  Radiation-Balance  of the Earth-Atmosphere System Derived from Nimbus II MRIR Instrument 1966

This is an important paper in climate studies as it was the first paper to quantify the radiation balance based on data from satellites.  However, the question is, where is the original data was fed into the computers to come up with these results?

Recovering the Nimbus II HRIR Data

In the paper the primary data used to produce the temperature gradients was obtained from the Medium Resolution Infrared Radiometer (MRIR) that flew on the Nimbus I-III meteorological satellite, the first satellite to carry this high quality of sensor.  Where is that data today?  I actually don’t know much about the MRIR data but I do know quite a lot about the High Resolution Infrared Radiometer (HRIR) that was a companion experiment on the early Nimbus birds.

During the missions the data from the spacecraft was transmitted in analog form to ground stations where it was recorded and from there it was sent for processing at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt Maryland.  Figure 2 shows the design of the HRIR instrument and the computerized method of processing of the data:

Figure 2a, 2b: HRIR Calibration and HRIR Data Processing

Figure 2a, 2b: HRIR Calibration and HRIR Data Processing

Looking at Figure 2a on the left you see that a laboratory calibration was done against a known blackbody target.  An in flight calibration standard was measured at the same time and a reference calibration for the instrument obtained.  The same in flight calibration reference blackbody (shown in the upper left) is scanned on each swath (a swath is a line of recording representing an 8.25 x 1100 km section of the Earth), providing a continuous means to maintain calibration of the instrument in flight.   Figure 3 shows a trace of a swath of HRIR analog data:

Figure 3: Nimbus HRIR Swath Trace With and Without Calibration Stair Step

Figure 3: Nimbus HRIR Swath Trace With and Without Calibration Stair Step

In 2009 my company, as a result of our work on the 1966 Lunar Orbiter data, was contracted by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) to take raw Nimbus HRIR data, correct errors, and translate it into a modern NetCDF-4 format so that it could be used in studies of pre 1979 Arctic and Antarctic ice extent.  The HRIR data had been digitized by the diligent effort of NASA Goddard scientists who had retrieved the surviving tapes from the federal records center.  Since no tape drives exist anymore that can read the tapes, a company was contracted to use an MRI type machine to read these low data density tapes.  This worked remarkably well and the data from over 1700 of these tapes were provided to us.  However, it turns out that the data tapes do not have the original analog data.  It turns out that the original analog tapes no longer exist.

The digitized data that we used are, as best as we can tell, is an intermediate product derived from the IBM 1704 computer processing. The swaths no longer have the calibration stair step or sync pulses but each one does have a metadata file with geo-positioning data.  We reprocessed the data and re-gridded it to comply with modern Net-CDF4 conventions.  The HRIR images produced are then used by the NSIDC to find the edges of the polar ice.  We took the files and translated them into .kml files for display on Google Earth with dramatic effect.  Our work is described in an AGU Poster (IN41A-1108, 2009).  Figure 4 is a .kml file mapped in Google Earth.

Figure 4: Google Earth .kml File of the Nimbus II HRIR Data, August 23, 1966

Figure 4: Google Earth .kml File of the Nimbus II HRIR Data, August 23, 1966

This image is centered near Indonesia.  Bluer temperatures are colder and clearly show the Monsoon clouds.  The contrast between the ocean and Australia is clearly evident.  Colder temps in the Himalayas are seen as is the heat of the Persian gulf and the deep cool temperatures of the clouds in the upper right from typhoon Helen and Ida. The HRIR data can be used for many purposes but due to the loss of calibration, only a relative comparison with modern IR data can be obtained.  This also renders replication of the findings of the radiation balance paper nearly impossible.  So, what the heck does all of this have to do with Lunar images?

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP)

In 1966-67 NASA sent five spacecraft to orbit the Moon as a photoreconnaissance mission to scout landing sites for the Apollo landings. Today’s reader must remember that prior to these missions mankind had never seen the Moon up close. The first three Lunar Orbiters were in a near equatorial orbit and the last two in polar orbits for general mapping. Each carried two visible light cameras, a 24” focal length instrument obtaining images at about 1 meter resolution, and an 8” focal length instrument at about 5-7 meters resolution on the on the lunar near side.  The images were recorded on 70mm SO-243 photographic film which was processed on board.  This film was then scanned with a 5 micron spot beam that modulated an analog signal that was transmitted to the Earth.  This is shown in figure 4:

Figure 5: Lunar Orbiter Image Capture, Scan, Transmit, Storage and Print Process

Figure 5: Lunar Orbiter Image Capture, Scan, Transmit, Storage and Print Process

The images were captured on the Earth via two dissimilar processes.  At the lower left, of the most interest to our project, was the recording of the pre-demodulated combined raw analog and digital data on a 2” Ampex FR-900 Instrumentation tape drive.  The second process demodulated the signal to produce a video signal that was sent to a long persistence phosphor called a kinescope.  The resulting image was photographed by a 35mm film camera.  The 35mm film strip positives were then assembled into a larger sub-image that was filmed again to create a 35mm large negative that was processed to create a 35mm print that was used by the photo analysts to look for landing sites.  However, as one might suspect, there was degradation of the quality of the images in going through this many steps.

I was aware of this quality reduction as I had worked with the film records in the late 1980’s at the University of Alabama Huntsville.  At that time I had researched the tapes but was informed that the tapes were unavailable, though rumors were that someone was digitizing them.  However, this never happened and all the archived images, such as the excellent repositories at the USGS in Flagstaff Arizona and at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPI) in Houston were derived from the films and were the only high resolution images of the Moon available.

In 2007 quite by accident I read a newsgroup posting that Nancy Evans, a retired JPL researcher, was retiring from her second career as a veterinarian and had a four FR-900 tape drives that she wanted to give away.  I later found that she was the responsible official at NASA JPL in the 1980’s that had saved the original Lunar Orbiter analog tapes and that they were still in storage at JPL.  I contacted Nancy and JPL and she was willing to donate the tape drives and JPL was willing to loan the tapes to NASA Ames were we had donated facilities to attempt to restore the tape drives and read the tapes.  I raised a bit of funding from NASA Watch editor Keith Cowing.  We loaded two trucks with the 1478 tapes weighing over 28,000 lbs and the four tape drives weighing a thousand pounds each and drove to NASA Ames.

The reason that previous efforts by Nancy Evans and engineer Mark Nelson from Cal Tech had been unsuccessful was that NASA was not convinced of the value of the original data.  I had known of the tapes before but we had to quantify the benefits to NASA before we could obtain funding.  We found the money quote as we called it in an obscure NASA memo from 1966.  This memo said in brief (figure 6):

Figure 6: NASA Memo Regarding Superiority of Mag Tape Lunar Images

Figure 6: NASA Memo Regarding Superiority of Mag Tape Lunar Images

This had originally been suggested by NASA contractor Bellcomm employee Charles Byrne as a means to improve the methods that would be used to analyze landing sites for the dangers from large boulders and to analyze the slope of the landing sites.  If rocks were too big or the slope more than eleven degrees, it would be a bad day for the crews seeking to land.  With this memo in hand NASA headquarters provided us with initial funding to get one tape drive out of the four operational and to see if we could produce one image.  We had three questions to answer.

  1. Could we get a 40+ year old tape drive operational again?
  2. Even if the tape drive is operational, is there any data still on the tapes?
  3. Even if there is surviving data, is it of higher quality than the USGS and LPI archives of the film images?

Suffice to say we answered all three questions in the affirmative and in November of 2008 we unveiled to the world our first image, which just happened to be the famous “Earthrise” image of the Earth as seen from lunar orbit from August 23, 1966.  The original image and our restored image is shown in figure 7:

Figure 7: Earthrise 1966 and Earthrise 2008!

Figure 7: Earthrise 1966 and Earthrise 2008!

The improvement in dynamic range we found from the documentation was a factor of four due to the reduced (250 to 1 on film vs 1000 to 1 on the tapes) dynamic range of the ground 35mm film.  The raw data also preserves the sync pulses used to rectify each line of the data and when we used oversampling techniques (10x in frequency and bit depth) we can produce much larger images (the Earthrise image at full resolution is 60’ x 25’ at 300 dpi).  With modern digitizing cards and inexpensive terabyte class drives this became a very manageable affair.  For more information, this link is from a lunch presentation that I gave at Apple’s worldwide developer conference (WWDC) in 2009. Here is a link to an LPI paper.

Where We are in 2013

After our success NASA headquarters Exploration Systems Mission Directorate provided further funding.  However, since ours was basically an unsolicited proposal that funding was limited.  Each of the Lunar Orbiters (LO) acquired approximately 215 medium and high resolution images.  The most important images are from Lunar Orbiter II, III, followed by LO-V, then I, then IV.  The reason is that LO-II and III have the best high resolution images on the near side equatorial region.  The digitized raw images best preserves the data in a form that can then be integrated into a multilayer dataset that best compares with today’s data which we have done on an experimental basis.  In contrast to the Nimbus HRIR data the LO data fully preserves the calibration marks, which are on the tapes every 22 seconds.  LO-I lost its image compensation sensor early in the mission resulting in blurred high resolution images.  The medium resolution images are fine though they are less relevant for comparison purposes due to their lower resolution. LO-V has almost all of its high resolution images at 2 meters, thus being a good comparison to LRO.  The lowest priority are the LO-IV images, which were obtained from a much higher altitude than the other missions and are thus of mostly historical value.

Our project has successfully digitized 98% of the LO-III images, with only six images lost to tape related causes (erased tapes), while we have found several images that are not in the existing USGS and LPI archives.  We have so far digitized about 40% of the LO-II images, and about 10% of the LO-V, LO-IV, and LO-1 images.

We Need Your Help

We are today raising funds through the crowd funding site;

We are doing this as we do not expect further NASA funding and there is only a limited amount of time still available to digitize these tapes.  The FR-900 tape drives use a head with four iron tips that rotate at 15,000 rpm.  These heads are in direct contact with the tapes that are moving by at 12.5 inches per second, creating a sandpaper effect that quickly wears the heads down.  Here is a video from a couple of years ago with a tour of the lab, which by is in an old MacDonald’s at the old Navy Base at Moffett field CA.  Only a few dozen tapes can be played before the heads wear out, necessitating a refurbishment that costs well over $7000 each time.

We also have to pay our engineer to maintain the drive, our students to manage, assemble, and quality check the images as well as myself to manage the project, operate the tape drives (I worked in video production for years and thus do the operations and real time quality control during image capture).  We are also preparing this data for subsequent archiving at the National Space Science Data Center though we also have the images archived at the NASA Lunar Science Institute and at our site where anyone is welcome to download them.  We also have a Lunar Orbiter Facebook page that you are welcome to join.

Scientific Value

The images that we are producing and the raw data will be available to anyone for their own purposes.  We have students who have been doing real science of comparing the LOIRP digitized images with the latest images from the NASA LRO mission.  Why is this important?  Since the Moon has no atmosphere, even the smallest meteors impact the surface and make a crater.  With a resolution on both LO and LRO ~one meter we can examine the lunar surface in detail over thousands of square kilometers over a period of almost half a century.  We can then see what the frequency of small impactors are on the Moon.  Not only does this provide information for crew safety while out on the surface of the Moon, it provides a statistical representation of the asteroid risk in near Earth space.  The bolide that exploded over Russia is thought to represent a risk of a one in one hundred year event.  What if that risk is higher?  Our images, coupled with the LRO LROC camera images can help to better bound this risk.

Our project has been honored by congress and our images were used in a presentation by NASA to the president in 2009 and were part of a package of NASA photos provided in the inaugural package this year.  We have had extensive coverage of our efforts in what we have termed “techno-archeology” or literally the archeology of technology.  Many of these links are at the end of this article.  However, with all of that it is a very difficult funding environment and that is why we need your help.

What is on the Crowdfunding Site

We are offering a lot of stuff for your donation on the site.  We have collectable and historical images that were printed back during the Apollo era for varying price ranges.  We have models of the Lunar Orbiter with a stand, suitable for your desk.  We have microfilm from the original photographs and if you cannot afford any of that, you can just make a donation!

This is what we call citizen science, the chance to have a part in an ongoing effort to archive data that can never been archived again.  Our tapes are gradually degrading and the tape drives cannot function without heads.  Our engineering team is comprised of retired engineers who won’t be around forever.  NASA JPL in 2008 estimated that to recreate what we have would cost over $6 million dollars.  We have done what we have done with a tenth of that amount of money and with your generous donation we will complete our task by the end of this September.

The Big Picture

Stories like ours regarding the actual and potential loss of valuable original data is not a rarity.  Due to funding cuts to NASA on October 1, 1977 they turned off the Apollo lunar surface experiments that we spent billions putting there.  The majority of the data that was obtained up until the experiments were turned off was in great danger of being lost.  Retired scientists and interested parties at NASA recently put together a team that retrieved these records from as far away as Perth Australia and the NASA Lunar Science Institute has a focus group dedicated to this effort.  Sadly some of this data is still in limbo and may indeed be lost forever due to poor record keeping and preservation of the original data.

For the reader of climate science related sites most of you are well aware of the issues associated with the adjustments of original data in the field of climate science.  The integrity of science is preconditioned on the ability to replicate results and the archival of data and the preservation of that original data is one of the highest priorities in science.  We are doing our small part here with the Lunar Orbiter images.  One of our team members is Charles Byrne, who just happened to be the one who wrote the original memo that resulted in the purchase of the tape drives.  In talking with Charlie he never in a million years thought that a generation later he would be able to work with the original data.  He has developed several algorithms that we are currently using to remove instrument related artifacts from our images.  Charlie is still doing original science with Lunar Orbiter images and is the author of the near side mega-basin theory.

One of the reasons that I started thinking about original data was that at the same time I was working with the forth generation lunar orbiter film in the late 1980’s Dr. John Christy was working just down the hall from me at UAH recovering satellite data from the 1970’s that for all practical purposes was the genesis of the era of the climate skeptic.  Did he think that his work would have had such a long lasting effect?  Just think, did Brahe in his wildest dreams think that his meticulous work would lead to the theory of gravitation?  We don’t know what may come in the future from the raw data that we are preserving but we do know that having an original record from 1966-67 could not be replicated at any price and with your support we will preserve this record for posterity.

A selection of published Articles About Our Project

Apple Worldwide Developer Conference Slide Show…

Wikipedia Page

LOIRP Gigapans

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment