To ARM or Not to ARM: Is That Really Our Question?

First of all I want to thank the many many people who have signed up to follow this blog recently.  In this blog I primarily talk about space.  I would bet a lot that many of my new readers are not as familiar with the terms and acronyms associated with NASA and space.  So, I will try and write this in a way as to convey information, rather than just throw these acronyms, such as ARM in the title above.  For those who read this who know all of this cold I ask for patience as it is important that more folks than just us people who know the inside baseball of NASA policy be informed.

NASA Asteroid Mission Slammed by Asteroid Mission Advocates

Today (Monday November 11, 2014), an article in Scientific American titled “NASA’s Plan to Visit an Asteroid Faces a Rocky Start.” A punny title but the article is about a real controversy related to the current NASA plan.  The plan is to go out and retrieve a small asteroid, bring it back into Earth orbit, and then send a crew up to visit it, examine it, and bring back samples.  The problem is that many, even those in the asteroid advocacy community, are opposed to the mission.  The most devastating and blunt criticism came from Mark Sykes, Director of the Planetary Science Institute. “I’m not a big fan of human space exploration as performance art, which is what ARM is, because the problem with performance art is that your next trick has to be bigger than your last trick, and that quickly gets unsustainable.  ARM will never be funded.  It will never happen.  It’s a waste of money.  It doesn’t advance anything and everything that could benefit from it could be benefitted far more by other, cheaper, more efficient means.”

Going beyond Sykes criticism the problems with the Mission are many fold but at the end of the day comes down to one word, money.  The problem is at the heart of all of NASA’s plans.  Even though the asteroid retrieval mission is the least expensive possible mission for the NASA developed Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion vehicle.  Skykes makes the claim that even this mission won’t be funded.  There is some merit to that position in that NASA’s plans for at least the last 30 years have been far bigger than their budget.  In NASA’s defense it has been their political masters who have given them these tasks but not the money to carry them out.  However, this has it seems reached a crisis point to where there are budgets to develop some of the hardware, but no budget to actually take advantage of the hardware that is being designed.

This past week I was interviewed for a documentary.  There were many people who were interviewed, including congress people, NASA officials, and other people in the so called “NewSpace” business.  What was startling was that, in the context of our interview, which was about exploration, that it was revealed that even the congress people did not see a budget ahead for NASA that makes any kind of sense.  The current administration budget run out (the budget for several years downstream, used for planning), only has enough money for about one launch of the heavy lift launch vehicle every four years.  The current head of NASA’s exploration department (EOMD) Bill Gerstenmaier, has stated that in order to fly safely the vehicle must fly at least once a year.   The industrial base for the heavy lift Space Launch System can only produce one every two years.  This is clearly an unsustainable situation for the agency, yet they march on toward the cliff, as their political masters decree.  Following is a look at the asteroid mission that is currently the subject of the controversy.

What is ARM?

The Asteroid Retrieval Mission (link to document) or ARM is what NASA is currently planning for their first mission for exploration.  The single chart that shows this is reproduced here in figure 1:

Figure 1: NASA Design Reference Mission for the Asteroid Retrieval Mission
Figure 1: NASA Design Reference Mission for the Asteroid Retrieval Mission

The mission as it is constructed today is above (or at least the latest online).  It has a large solar electric propulsion system being launched that carries a large “bag” with it to “bag” an asteroid of up to 1,000 tons and bring it back to an orbit that orbits the Moon called a Distant Retrograde Orbit (DRO).  After the Solar Electric Propulsion system (also called a SEP).  After the asteroid and SEP enters the DRO,  (see how quickly things can disintegrate into multiple acronyms?), NASA sends a human mission using NASA’s heavy lift launch vehicle and the Orion manned vehicle.  This is shown in figure 2:

Figure 2: NASA's Orion Manned vehicle docked to the Solar Electric Propulsion system and its "Bagged" Asteroid
Figure 2: NASA’s Orion Manned vehicle docked to the Solar Electric Propulsion system and its “Bagged” Asteroid

In figure 2 the NASA Orion crew module, is launched to rendezvous with the solar electric propulsion system and the asteroid that has now been bagged and returned to the distant retrograde orbit.  However, this is a greatly pared down mission compared to what they wanted to fly just three years ago when the ARM mission was first announced.  Figure 3 shows that mission scenario:

Figure 3: NASA 2011 Human Architecture Team ARM Mission Baseline
Figure 3: NASA 2011 Human Architecture Team ARM Mission Baseline

This mission would have been a lot more capable, applicable to future missions, and more fun than the current planned mission.  More details are shown here in figure 4:

Figure 4: The NASA 2011 ARM Mission Activity at the Target NEA
Figure 4: The NASA 2011 ARM Mission Activity at the Target NEA

The details of the mission described in figures 3 and 4 are from the NASA Human Space Flight Architecture (HAT) Overview, by Chris Culbert at the GER workshop in November of 2011.  The document link is here.


There is an obvious and distinct difference between figures 1 and 2 vs figures 3 and 4.  Lets call the mission in figures 1 and 2 little ARM and the ones in 3 and 4 big ARM.   First of all the asteroid chosen for the big ARM mission is 2008EV5 an asteroid that has a high probability of being a Carbonaceous Chondrite.  A carbonaceous chondrite is a specific type of asteroid that is known from comparable meteorites found on the ground to have lots of hydrocarbons, water (in clays) as well as many other interesting chemical compounds.  A carbonaceous chondrite is a possible target for resource extraction for propellants and other materials of value in space.  Here is a link to a scientific paper about 2008EV5.

The other hardware for the big ARM mission looks much more capable than for the little ARM mission.  There are two solar electric propulsion systems, and they look much bigger, 300 kilowatts vs the 40-50 kilowatt version on the little ARM mission.  There is also a habitat vehicle, looks to be a International Space Station style module along with a Space Exploration Vehicle (SEV) that NASA JSC has been using in analog simulations for several years.

In looking at the difference between the little ARM and big ARM mission it is easy to see how Mark Sykes is upset and says what he says about it being a waste of time.  To me the big ARM mission looks pretty cool and capable while the little ARM is not.  However, I don’t think that Mark is right about not being able to fund it.  At the end of the day, the difference between little ARM and big ARM is exactly the cost, and it is more than likely that the political masters have told NASA how much money is available and this is the best that they could come up with, within that political reality.

No Bucks, No Buck Rogers

At the end of the day lack of funding is the perennial problem at NASA since the Apollo era.  This is what the article in Scientific American is talking about when it says that there is a shortage of delta-p.  I can find no cost estimates for the big ARM mission, but suffice to say the price tag is on the order of most of the cost of a Navy super carrier, approaching $10 billion dollars.  In 2012 another study was commissioned, this time with one of the co-leads being Planetary Society co-founder Dr. Louis Friedman.  This one is functionally identical with the little ARM mission in figures 1 and 2 and with a price tag of $2.6 billion dollars.  Even this amount of money Mark Sykes says is not going to be provided to NASA besides it being a colossal waste of time.  I don’t buy this as with spending for the James Webb telescope winding down and the development costs for the SLS and Orion winding down there will be funding wedges available for that mission, but as Sykes accurately asks, what’s the point?

It is my strong opinion that NASA is caught between a rock and a hard place in relation to exploration.  The Space Launch System heavy lift launch vehicle is consuming over $3 billion a year.  So is the Orion vehicle.  ISS is expensive to operate.  Science and aeronautics gets its share.  Thus NASA has very little money to spend on developing the hardware for actually doing the exploration that congress and the white house has mandated that it do.  So, little ARM is the type of mission you get.  There are those who would claim that with deficits this high we cannot afford to spend more money on NASA.  To me this is not a reason, it is an excuse to continue to increase budgets in other areas.

The simple fact is that since 2005, the federal budget has increased by over a trillion dollars per year while NASA’s budget has barely increased.  It is all about priorities.  To prove this here is a reprint of a spreadsheet that I did related to the NASA budget.  This is shown in table 1 below:

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies
Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

In the above spreadsheet I took the budget numbers available from the White House for the major federal agencies and replicated them in the lower part of the spreadsheet as numbers normalized against a constant 1 for NASA’s budget from 1966 through 2014.  As you can see the fraction of the budget allocated to NASA was only surpassed by the defense department in 1966.  However, by 2014 NASA’s fractional budget allocation is surpassed by all but two agencies.  This strongly indicates that it has never been about the deficit, it has been about priorities when pitted against other national interests.  Those who advocate space the way that NASA has done it since Apollo really need to get their heads wrapped around this reality.  The only president to provide NASA with a serious budget increase since Apollo was Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s who more than doubled the agency’s budget.

Article Response to Critics

Dr. Louis Friedman had this to say about critics of the little ARM plan;

“What the critics don’t seem to understand is that if we don’t send humans to an asteroid that is moved closer to Earth, we will send humans nowhere for the foreseeable future, which means the next decade or two,” Friedman says. “If we drop this mission, our planned rockets and crew modules can go out as far as the moon but we won’t be able to land without investments that are frankly unrealistic right now.”

Here is where you have to know a bit about Dr. Friedman.  He is a very well known advocate for humans to Mars, and has opposed returning to the Moon.  As far back as the late 1980’s when I was a student advocate for the return to the Moon, Dr. Friedman casually dismissed my advocacy of lunar industrialization as “Deux ex Machina”.  I had to look that one up at the time and here is the definition from Wikipedia:

plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring the tale to a happy ending, or as a comedic device.

Dr. Friedman, as well as many others have the weird opinion (to me), that because we landed on the Moon six times over 40 years ago that it is time to go to the next bright shiny object which is Mars.  The problem is that the people that have been advocating this for forty plus years now have never been able to get congress to put up the money to get us there and so now in their twilight years are grasping at the little ARM mission as something that at least gets us in the direction of Mars.

Dr. Friedman dismissed my (and anyone else’s) interest in lunar industrialization as the means to get to the Moon and make it a staging ground for the rest of the solar system simply because it is the way to solve the otherwise unsolvable problem of Mars;  just not in the way that he and other advocates of a Mars only architecture want to happen.  They keep saying that they are afraid we will get bogged down on the Moon and never get to Mars (or at least not in their lifetime). You can see this in is quoted paragraph that I have bolded. The other unstated statement in the bolded part of his quote is the assumption that the lunar lander a) has to be built by NASA, and b) is so expensive that it is unaffordable.  Well that is true of the NASA Constellation Altair lander, but that is hardly the only way to get humans to the surface.

Myself and many others in the NewSpace arena are advocating reintegrating the massive leap forward in robotics, 3D printing, communications, computers, software, and other technologies back into plans for landing on the Moon.  Further, this landing is not for another touch and go, which was the joke about the Constellation plan for appeasing president Bush’s goal of a Moon landing, but to stay, and develop the resources of the Moon as a means to build a sustainable Mars exploration program.  As for landers, as far back as the Apollo era low cost landers were studied.  In the NASA JSC Lunar Gemini project (link here), they would have used a super lightweight lander with existing rockets to get the crew to the surface.  It was considered too risky then but there are many ways to make this work now, and very affordably.

Conclusion and Observation

It is my strong opinion, backed by the strewn wreckage of 40 years of plans produced on view foils to power points to advanced pretty graphics, that unless a president comes into office willing to expend political capital to do it, NASA is not going back to Mars in any way that resembles colonization or even extended stays.  For our generation, what the heck is the point of planting a few flags and leaving a few footprints in the orange soil of Mars to follow those few in the grey soil of the Moon?

Our generation wants to take the technologies that have been developed, and whose development is accelerating here on the Earth, and begin the actual industrialization of the Moon, the exploitation of the asteroids and the colonization of Mars.  Anything else is unacceptable.  The economic development of the solar system was a theme 54 years ago by Ralph Cordiner, the CEO of General Electric, who feared that the government dominated program of his era would lead to a dead end.  His prophetic words should ring loud in our ears today.  I will leave you with his desired end state, a economic development of the solar system, led by a free people.  That is cool…

Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System
Stage 3 of the Economic Development of the Solar System

Those guys had vision.  Science alone will NEVER get us there.  Time to think different about space.



20 thoughts on “To ARM or Not to ARM: Is That Really Our Question?

  1. If a major cut in NASA’s budget is coming that would be a good time to reorientate NASA’s missions. Devise a set of missions and developments that cost 20% less than NASA’s current budget.

    1. I don’t think that there is a major cut coming, I just don’t think that, barring an inspired president, that there is any major gain coming as well. People don’t really remember that Ronald Reagan doubled NASA’s budget in 8 years and that is the best since Apollo.

      NASA is already spending half its budget on human spaceflight. If we dumped the big rocket and the oversized Orion capsule, we could fund a really robust exploration program.

  2. I completely agree that “exploration” is neither the reason nor the way to create a sustained human presence off planet. My question (from a deep seated cynical place, to be sure) is what will they do on the moon to make it worth the gold to get there?

    It used to be said that if there was a mountain of gold bars sitting on the moon, it wouldn’t economically viable to go get them. With the price of gold today and the potential low cost of heavy lift from the Falcon Heavy this may no longer be true, however there are no gold bars on the moon, What is there, right now, that might be worth the cost? Are PGMs (Platinum Group Metals, to explain my TLA [Three letter Acronym]) still a potentially viable resource? Have solar power satellites started to cross the line into being economically viable if supplied with lunar-smelted aluminum and titanium?

    Some of the underpinning costs have changed in the last 10 years, so what now might make sense to exploit to form the basis of a lunar operation. That’s the key question.

    And as for the $10 billion of a big ARM mission, if it wanted to even Canada could support that cost. Our biggest city’s mayor is talking over a billion a year for a subway system. I know Boston spent over $10 billion for the “Big Dig” harbour improvement. There has to be enough money in Business in the US for a space economy if there is a business case for it. Is there? Really?

    And if not just now, how close are we?


    1. Don’t fall into the trap of demanding the single killer app that will pay for commercial space exploration. It is my opinion that it is the industrialization of the Moon, which means building an industrial economy, that will make the Moon and Mars both viable and sustainable destinations.

      The Moon is home to a host of metal oxides that can be reduced to metal and oxygen. Magnesium, Aluminum, Iron, and Silicon are all available in bulk quantities at the poles, along with sunlight and volatiles.

      In energy terms the surface of the Moon is closer to GEO than GEO is to LEO. There is something that is far more valuable than gold is bits. With large GEO communications platforms (orders of magnitude more valuable than power beamed), we can finally get to the goal of ubiquitous global communications, remote sensing, and other applications.

      The Moon is much closer in energy terms to Mars than the Earth’s surface is. This is what George Bush junior was talking about in his VSE speech in 2004. This is what Marburger talked about in his Goddard speech in 2005.

      So what I see is the Moon as a manufacturing base for space vehicles, materials for large space structures in GEO, and as the best way to support any sustained exploration of the rest of the solar system.

    2. “It used to be said that if there was a mountain of gold bars sitting on the moon, it wouldn’t economically viable to go get them. With the price of gold today and the potential low cost of heavy lift from the Falcon Heavy this may no longer be true, however there are no gold bars on the moon”

      There are some things on the moon worth more than gold.
      Lunar dirt dirt is more valuable then gold, and it’s not just about scarcity,
      though it is related to the costs- but so is gold.
      So I don’t think you want to look lunar sample and desire that they remain at a
      high cost, rather I think the goal should be to lower the cost or price as much as
      Or aluminum used to be expensive, but there great benefits to the world due to it becoming cheaper, and likewise I think there would be great benefits to lower the price
      of lunar samples. Or I think it’s much better to have the option of buying say $1000 dollars worth of lunar samples than having to get in line and beg for free lunar samples.
      Or getting what you want when you want it, has value. whereas getting in line to get free bread, is somewhat pointless and one would only do it if desperate for some bread.

      So if there was available a selection of lunar samples and if one get get small samples
      for about $50 to $100 per gram [$1555 to $3110 per troy oz] that would be good thing.
      So if schools could buy such samples [and say at discount, billionaires could buy them
      for schools in way they bought computers for schools] one could need a lot of lunar samples- so including schools in India or say Ukraine could also get some- and so not just rich neighborhoods- then it’s useful, just like useful to have school which has a bunch geological rock samples. Also as recall in days I went to schools they had program to loan various school aids to number of different schools. So one have lunar sample at some central location which provided to to number of different schools.

      And then you people that collect things like baseball cards, which can another market- maybe they have 1/5 or 1/10 of gram, and it’s 20 different cards related to a particular
      location or lunar event. Then have the more “serious” collector in wants more unique lunar samples and having “full complement” or everything which ever become available.
      And lunar sample are useful like money, in the they are unique and identifiable and can’t be counterfeit, so nation could want it to mark money, so one tells something is not a counterfeit [unless the person want to forge money can get access to the same material- or it’s all about making harder to do a good job forging stuff. And of course quantities involved per item could quite microscopic- part of the ink or plastic in some small area.

      My point is at the moment it’s not buy able or +$1000 per gram [including lunar meteorites]. So point is there could wide variety of types of lunar sample and wide variety
      of different “quality” [pristine samples with much documentation regarding them, lunar gems, etc] and because of general need and wide variety different markets related to lunar samples. One could sell tens of tonnes per year, still be rarer than gem diamonds or rubies, and if get to point hundreds tons and cost go below $50 per gram it’s not a bad thing.
      Or the lowest prices one might get could related to price of rocket fuel on the Moon, and quite possible lunar rocket fuel is around 2000 per lb for a decade or so. It might take
      a few decades for lunar rocket fuel to sell at below 100 per lb. So there is cost to get
      the samples, just there is a high cost to mine gold. And baseball card go up in value, regardless of the cost of paper.
      Or if say computers are worth “to the world” hundreds of billions of dollars, a similar thing can be said about lunar samples.

      In terms bigger value, one probably has over trillion dollar of water on the moon. Or total value of gold about 8 trillion dollars and maybe after decades of return lunar sample
      they in total may worth over 100 billion dollar- maybe 1/2 trillion at most, and the Moon has about trillion or more dollar of water to get and sell which gross over trillion dollar
      over period of a century of time. The water would used [and partially recovered] not be in a vaunt somewhere, and a very small part of this total water value would connected
      to bringing lunar samples to earth, but lunar samples would be part of what lunar water is
      used for, and in beginning could be a significant portion of what rocket fuel is used for.
      And lunar sample will be connected to the history of how human opened the space frontier- so in sense they like great piece of art- and could have value in time when
      one get lunar like getting any geological rock sample [which aren’t very cheap btw- considering that they are just rocks:) ].
      But anyhow, this mostly depends on their being minable lunar water. and we don’t
      know that lunar water is minable, before we be certain, they needs to be some exploration of the areas where we think should or probably has lunar water which could
      possibly be profitably mined. And then up to various companies in terms of how they do it
      whether it actually makes a profit. Generally, the problem with mining lunar water is that
      most likely NASA will not do a adequate job of exploring and degree of how well it’s explored we be significant part of the risk for any lunar water mining. Or once any mining begins, follow up private exploration will most likely do a better job of determining the risks involved with mining and where exactly is the best places to mine.
      But it seems we could expect NASA to do a much better job then done to date regarding exploring the moon to find water.

      1. ..the problem with mining lunar water is that most likely NASA will not do a adequate job of exploring….

        I personally don’t think that it is NASA’s job to do much more than they have now. Maybe a lander to check out one or both of the polar areas but beyond that is is not in their job description to carry the torch for the economic development of the solar system.

        As one of the ones that have processed lunar data and as one of the founders of the Lunar Prospector project, what we wanted for all those years is pretty much there. I don’t want to waste anymore time waiting for the fairy god mother of government to do this for us.

        On the other hand, NASA can help to be an enabler by buying services from private industry for them to fulfill any scientific purposes they may have on the Moon. This goes to the great mistake that was made when Kennedy proclaimed that the government would be the agent for exploration for the American people. Even if it made sense then, it makes far less so now.

        1. –I personally don’t think that it is NASA’s job to do much more than they have now. Maybe a lander to check out one or both of the polar areas but beyond that is is not in their job description to carry the torch for the economic development of the solar system.–
          I would argue it’s in the US national interests [not saying national security interests] and I think it’s in NASA interests. Or if NASA wants to explore Mars, then I think NASA should first explore the Moon.
          And I think congress has added something in NASA charter regarding NASA role in regard commercial interests. Ah here it is:
          “c) Commercial Use of Space.–Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the Administration seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.”

          I think that is pretty clear. Unless you can give some information which means clear that lunar water is not actually, a potential commercial use of space.

          I think both developing fuel depots in space, and adequate exploration to determine whether or not there is minable lunar water, would assist commercial use of space.
          And as said if NASA desires to do a lot more exploration of Mars- manned missions, Mars sample returns, etc, then depots and exploring the moon aligns with this purpose.
          Though to make sure I am clear, I don’t NASA needs a lunar base at this point in time [once there was commercial lunar water mining, then one reassess such idea of a NASA lunar base, due to the lower costs due to having commercial lunar water mining. Or if costs less than 1 billion dollars per year for lunar base, than it become attractive in terms
          having a base. So also if NASA want more NASA exploration of the Moon in the future
          it has interests in exploring the Moon to determine what the potential of lunar mining.

          And to be clear, I don’t think NASA is required or should “try to make lunar water minable”- just find out the facts and report them, armed with these facts, various parties are more easily [or be enabled] decide whether it merits the risk of investing in such a enterprise.
          Or I don’t want anyone [including even the Chinese] mining un-minable lunar water.
          So explore it first so any person [me or you] can have a more informed position on possibility of whether mining lunar water might be profitable activity or “can’t be”
          [I mean in the near term- not after some magic is involved in some distant future.]

          Though one possibility is for NASA to explore the Moon and the conditions are such at that at that moment in time in which it’s done, it’s not minable, and some change has to occur which could make it profitable say 10 year after completion of the NASA lunar exploration. Or it might bethat long to solve “whatever” problem is not allowing it to be possible.
          So things like improvement if 3-d printing, better mining techniques due the ever increasing developments related to robotic teleoperation of terrestrial mining- or simply “all things clicking/converging”.

          But anyhow, I don’t think the same people assessing it, should then decide to mine it- as it’s invitation for groupthink and general dumbness based upon expectation of what you want to be true vs reality.

          1. The commercial space thing has been there since the beginning of NASA’s charter.

            I am puzzled by your advocacy of sortie missions while at the same time calling for a propellant production operation that necessarily implies a fixed location. In an ideal world what you advocate makes sense but since we don’t live there and since we have to deal with what is the situation today we need to look at alternative paths.

            I grow weary with waiting for a great president that supports our goals. This is part of our problem, relying on the government.

            1. –I am puzzled by your advocacy of sortie missions while at the same time calling for a propellant production operation that necessarily implies a fixed location. In an ideal world what you advocate makes sense but since we don’t live there and since we have to deal with what is the situation today we need to look at alternative paths.–

              What saying is sell to congress a cheap major lunar exploration program and major part
              of the plan has exit strategy.

              Not much different than the Bush plan which was accepted by both houses of Congress.
              I am just filling in a few details.
              Depots should be something done first.
              Depots are necessary for Manned Mars. Depots will allow a cheaper Lunar and Mars exploration programs
              Again, not any different- studies have indicated as best way to do this.

              What is probably different in terms of depots, is that I think NASA should be pretty eager
              *not* to be on position of being long term operators of depots. Or NASA should try become a buyer which capable of buying of rocket fuel in space, and not be an owner of depots.
              But in beginning, NASA is probably better to be the owner of a depot.
              Or KSC should be the owner of a depot for it’s inclination, and depots in other location are not owned by NASA, but NASA has capability of buying rocket fuel however gotten there.
              Or by being operator and user of a depot, then NASA has established a method in which
              it’s spacecraft can be re-fueled. Which then makes NASA a customer that can buy rocket fuel in space. And it’s possible to get other customers once NASA is a customer.
              Or other parties will also buy these cars which can be re-fueled.

              The lunar program will have sorties, because it’s exploration.
              One does exploration before one mines anything, and before one puts a house anywhere.
              But NASA is not going to have base or mining operation on the Moon, rather it’s purpose
              it to find minable lunar water.
              Finds some minable water, then finds other minable water, then finds other minable water.
              Then NASA is DONE.
              Next NASA does Mars exploration program.
              If NASA has found minable lunar water this could affect future Manned Mars program.
              If NASA doesn’t find minable lunar water, then perhaps the focus should be to find minable water somewhere else in Space.
              Perhaps the focus should be exploring Mars moons- to see if there is minable water. Perhaps NASA should focus on asteroids as source of minable water.

              But NASA does not need the lunar water mined before exploring Mars- it mostly regarding long term Mars.
              Or there no purpose to a flag and footprint Mars program. Mars is a huge area to explore [unlike the lunar polar regions]. So Mars should be something than requires more than 2 decades of NASA exploration.
              If the moon is mined, than this will slightly lower cost to Mars exploration in terms of
              buying rocket fuel and lunar water, but if commercial activity on the Moon, one probably going to lower earth launch prices [more significant]. And one will get political support for longer period of Mars exploration [more significant]. And what lunar mining will do is lower the cost of human settlement on Mars.
              Or exported lunar rocket fuel will be competitive with earth shipped rocket fuel, lunar water will simply be much cheaper [not competitive- except with other lunar mining]
              In beginning isn’t much cost savings, but over time it could become more so.

              But to people going to mars, the lower cost of rocket fuel and water, might amount to making it 50% cheaper, and with the future of ever lower prices.
              Or the program costs of Mars program is largely related to cost NASA employees on Earth- whereas someone going to Mars, the cost will mostly be the water for the trip and the rocket fuel for the trip.
              Or if NASA got free lunar water and rocket fuel, it would be a small effect upon it’s total program costs.

              One has to do something with ISS, before Manned Mars, but not necessarily
              before the start lunar program.

  3. Dennis, I follow your blogs because of your conclusions you write as result of your studies. One example that sticks in my mind was you mentioned for 40 years every proposal for heavy lift launch vehicle [from Shuttle C to Ares V] has gone nowhere, maybe it’s time to come up with a new strategy (which I believe is your argument we should work using existing medium lift vehicles and develop fuel depots).

    And now you come up with this phrase, “…problem with performance art is that your next trick has to be bigger than your last trick, and that quickly gets unsustainable.” This seems to summarize ever since Apollo there’s always been “next stop is Mars” which is grander than Apollo but there never has been the money.

    You do illustrate it is a issue of priorities and not budget. Though our existing launch vehicles (and derivatives) were developed at enormous costs as discussed by Bruce Medaris in his 1962 book “Countdown to Decision.” I wonder if $48B was not spent on Atlas, would that rocket exist as it is today, or would someone figure out a better way to develop such a launch vehicle? However back then priority was performance at any price, so NASA (and USAF) were given lots of money and resources back in the days. Priorities are different as we see the agency with one less A than NASA gets top money and can basically do whatever they want. I located copies of “Countdown to Decision” on, will order one soon.

    1. Michael

      In all fairness that was Mark Sykes quote. I would very much like to see humans go go Mars. However, I recognize that without some super spiffy technology like gas phase nuclear or some such, it will remain a flags and footprints mission until we can get infrastructure in space to support it.

      Just look at NASA’s last DRM for Mars. It is by definition a flags and footprints mission. What the hell are they doing with that? It would cost $20 billion dollars just for one frigging flight? Are you kidding me.

      After Dr. Friedman said what he said to me, way back in the late 1980’s I asked another equally famous scientists about what that meant. The response was interesting. This other scientist said…”What Lou means is that he wants to see humans go to Mars before he dies and anything else is a distraction”. Well Dr. Friedman is in his 70’s now, so time is running out.

      The fundamental fact is that launching stuff from the Earth is damn hard. Setting up an industrial infrastructure on the Moon is getting easier every day.

      You also have to read Walter MacDougal’s “The Heavens and the Earth”. I have a follow up to this where Apollo was merely a pawn for technocratic government.

  4. Exploring the Moon.
    To pull a number out of a hat, I think NASA should send crew or non-crew missions to the Moon
    12 times, and of the 12 at least 3 must go to different locations in polar region and at least one to either pole. Or this is the opposite idea of trying to make a base on the Moon, where one wants land all the spacecraft and where one builds infrastructure related to landing and leaving a base.
    The limit of 12 refers to lunar lander and to lander which roughly cost 1 billion or more, whether
    they are manned or robotic. Whereas something like LRO, which could called 3 vehicles [impactor
    that which followed it and the orbiter] if it was a lander would count as 1- but since it wasn’t a lander it wouldn’t part of 12 limitation, or basically anything which is precursor type missions which are inexpensive [less than 1/2 billion ] and/or orbiter rather than lander, don’t count as arbitrary limit of 12 landers.
    The point is not 12, but rather some number say between 6 and 20 and one has total budget of 40 billion for entire program and so the total amount of lander are some fraction of 40 billion- maybe comprising a total of 20 billion of the 40 billion.
    In addition to picking some number, one also has time limitation. Basically explore the Moon for 5 years, starting from the point of first program mission going into orbit or landing on the surface of the moon or entire program from start to finish, starting money is allocated would be 10 years or less.
    And aspect of using human crew, could be to get the program finished on time, and program should done in manner that it start with robotic and ends with crew. So program starts by focus
    on doing robotic mission, but does assume 20 billion is spent on solely and robotics [it’s not an unbelievably vast robotic program- though it’s big]. And part of this big robotic program, is idea
    that NASA going to the Moon, and then going to explore Mars [also with big- or much bigger robotic program. And part of lunar program will be using fuel depots, and fuel depots are also
    fundamentally robotic. And the part of establishing depots, is not regarded as the start of the 5 year clock to b finished with lunar program. Again doesn’t have been 5 years, it could 6 or 4 years, but point is some time limitation is picked as the target.
    Or in other words, having depots could be done separately and prior to the lunar exploration program starts- but if the depots are not already available, one has to include this in the lunar program.
    Or the focus starting with developing depots, could begun as soon as we get the next president who interested in space exploration. And once have this depot program started, then start the lunar program [or if think Mars is better choice, a Mars program {or Venus or Mercury, or Ceres, or some other rock}]

  5. “Our generation wants to take the technologies that have been developed, and whose development is accelerating here on the Earth, and begin the actual industrialization of the Moon, the exploitation of the asteroids and the colonization of Mars. ”

    Our generation may want that. But our Congress does not. You will not find anywhere a real forward goal of Mars colonization in any federal legislation (no, not even in the 1988 NASA Authorization Act that picked up some of the debris from the abortive “Space Settlement Act”.)

    So it’s really simple. Unless Congress states unequivocally that Mars colonization is a national goal, it isn’t a national goal, and no federal money will be expended to do it. If Elon wants to do it out of his own pocket, more power to him.

    As to exploiting asteroids, I don’t believe there is any legislation that has actually passed that makes this a national goal.

    So let’s make pronouncements like this with some care. If our nation decides to make this a priority, I’ll cheer along with everyone else. But if our nation has not decided to make it a priority, I would consider pleas for funding to do it to be pretty much non-starters. Advocates for space colonization have one big job to do, and that’s to get Congress to assert that it’s really a national need. No, don’t tell me we need it to make jobs, or we need it to beat the Chinese. Tell me why, in itself, it is something the nation needs.

      1. It’s not their money, it’s the citizen of the USA money.
        Americans are spending about 20 billion dollars a year on an agency which is suppose
        to explore space. A small part of 20 billion per year could be used to explore the Moon.
        But 20 billion a year is not enough money to open the space frontier.
        This requires somewhere around 1 trillion dollars of investment before could say the space frontier is open.
        Steps towards opening the space frontier, would include exploration of the closest planets to Earth and the exploration of smaller bodies- asteroids and moons of Mars and
        of course, our Moon.
        NASA should have higher priority of exploring our Sun, and the nearby bodies, as compared to studying anything else in space. The next priority should comets with periodically come near Earth [and have probably impacted earth- such the object which caused the extinction of the dinosaurs *could* have been a comet, and the largest object
        to hit earth within last 200 years *could* have been a comet, and the object which may have large scale climate effects and extinction of North American large animals, *may* have been a comet. And we just had comet come very close to Mars- and had it instead hit Mars it would have had large and global effect upon Mars. And one of those effects would have been destroying spacecraft which are currently at Mars.

        The only significant reason to study stars in our universe is largely to understand our Sun. Studying the Sun is pretty important, compared to studying things which may impact
        Earth- it’s comparable. Or one can argue one or the other is more important.

      2. Um, so why is Congress being asked to pay for ARM? Your argument seemed to be that NASA isn’t getting enough to make such a mission affordable. I may have missed something, but in your argument above, I saw nothing about forgetting Congress.

        Look, if Elon wants to go piddle on a boulder, and he reaches into his own pocket to do it, more power to him. But if the country s being asked to do it, the country deserves to know what national needs it serves. ARM serves no national needs, not even the delusional idea that our country needs to go to Mars. “We” will do this without their money? Er, no. Somebody really really rich might do it without their money, but that’s not me. My money goes to Congress. Like it or not.

        1. Heinrich

          In some measure, my article is what we call “inside baseball”. It is written for general consumption but at the same time it is written to those who know a bit of the history of the last 40 years of failed efforts since the Apollo program to get the U.S. back to an era of beyond low earth orbit exploration.

          I would agree with you that if the country is going to go to an asteroid, that the purposes for doing so be clearly articulated. The article that I am playing off of, which is linked (which I hope you also read), makes the argument that the ARM as currently constituted is practically worthless and does not serve a national need. My response is to bring a bit of context to the argument and show that the current ARM mission (little ARM), is a descoping of the big ARM mission that in general I and many in the community at least conditionally supported. The worst part of the budgetary issue is that both the executive branch and congress want NASA to do all these things, but are unwilling to provide the necessary funding to do it in the way that they are being ordered to execute the program. This is wasteful at best and positively destructive at worst. We are on the way to the worst outcome.

          The reason that big ARM morphed into little ARM is exactly the budgetary issue. There comes a time, and this is the argument of Mark Sykes, that the mission brings too little merit to the table to be executed, something again that many of us agree with.

          Indeed there are rich people who want to explore and develop space, with Elon being the most visible manifestation. My own sense of frustration revolves around the fact that using the technocratic model (which by definition is a top down state directed method) we will not see the same results that would accrue to the nation if these efforts were more focused on the interest and needs of commerce and thus the proper role for the government to take is that of an enabler (to promote the general welfare) rather than as the agent to do such actions (provide) themselves.

          At the end of the article I harken back to another article (also linked) from 1960, from the CEO of General Electric, Ralph Cordiner. He warned about where the nation was going with the technocratic state directed space program and promoted an alternate scenario, more in keeping with the American spirit, that of economic development, again enabled by, but not driven by, the government. He also prophetically warned about the consequences of the technocratically directed program, most of the prophecies we see fulfilled today.

          Hope this provides a bit of clarity and I do ask you to follow the links to the other articles…

  6. I wonder how much a 500,000 kg rock is worth in a longer lasting lunar orbit.
    It seems if it were only worth $100 per kg [50 million] it’s not worth getting, but if it were worth
    $1000 per kg [500 million], it might be worth getting such a rock.
    Or in terms of value, what is worth more, 500 tons of dead GEO satellites or 500 tons of space rock in lunar orbit?
    Or would 250 tons of rock and 250 tons of space junk be worth more than 500 tons of rock or space junk?

    Another comparison is what is worth more to the US tax payers, SLS or a vehicle which could get
    500 tons of space junk or space rock and perhaps do other things than get space junk or rocks?

    So a government owned rocket which lift 70 or 130 tons from the earth surface and not be reusable. As compared to rocket which can move 500 tons in the space environment and is it reusable?

    Another question is does the reusable spacecraft that could move 500 tons in the space environment have to use ion rocket engines.
    Could you instead use chemical rocket engines?
    Suppose one had a chemical and ion rocket which could move 500 tons in space, would that be better than just a ion or chemical rocket which can move 500 tons in space.

    What about a nuclear rocket- would that be better than ion or chemical or ion and chemical rocket?

    I think it would worth more to move ISS, than it would to move space rocks or space junk- though some may regard ISS as space junk at some point in the future.

    Not sure a ion only engine can move ISS very well- despite claims by other people. Or
    generally I think Ion engines work best if one in in GEO, or other high earth orbits. And work less well in LEO [or in any planet’s very low orbit- they though work ok in the Moon’s low orbit].

    So basic question is what is worth more to NASA, a rocket able to lift 70 or 130 tons from Earth
    or a rocket can add a couple km/sec to a 500 ton rock. Or if NASA was offered either and both at same price, which should NASA pick to buy.
    Or flip side supposing NASA was not building SLS. And rocket company was making a decision
    of making a 130 ton rocket or a rocket which could move 500 tons in space. And it going to rent
    either rocket and both cost the same to develop, which one would NASA want to rent or use
    in the decade or two? And besides renting to NASA, could there other space agencies or private parties which could also be our customers?

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