Architecture Notes for Sustainable and Affordable Exploration


It has been interesting to watch and read about the potential new direction of American space policy in the new administration.  I could say that about every new administration, but once again it seems that the interest of the new team is the Moon, which of course I applaud.  However, this laudable goal seems to be in danger in getting swallowed up in a fight between the so called “old space” and “new space” whatever those terms mean to you.  This is bad, and unnecessary, and ultimately destructive.

Since I know some of the people involved I am not going to directly address the internecine fighting other than to note that the fight is between the “Alabama mafia” and those who support, in the words of a presidential advisor, “new people and new ideas”.  We need new people and we need new ideas, but perhaps those new ideas can take a lot from many of the old ideas, and simply work on implementation.

The Road We Can’t Take

On February 16th 2017 there was a congressional hearing,  NASA: Past, Present, and Future in the Committee for Space, Science, and Technology.  Several of the icons of the past 50 years of space testified, including Dr. Harrison Schmidt, of Apollo 17 fame, General Thomas P. Stafford (USAF Ret) from Gemini and Apollo 10 flights, and former NASA Associate Administrator for Science Ellen Stefan, and Mr. Tom Young, former NASA Goddard Space Center director and former C suite senior leader at Martin Marietta and SAIC.

To me the testimony was almost uniformly in praise of how we used to do space, with an emphasis on Apollo program type efforts and a focus mostly on Mars.  Dr. Schmidt’s key points are shown below.

Dr. Harrison Schmidt Mars Program Milestones

While on the surface this looks interesting and even praiseworthy the problem is that the price tag of $20 billion per year for exploration (more than $11 billion per year over the current budget), is exceptionally unlikely.  With a budget the size of the USA today a $20 billion per year exploration budget (which by implication means a ~$30 billion a year NASA budget), is reasonable, especially with all the crap that we waste money on otherwise.  However, without a miracle, it is unlikely that this amount of money will be available.  So what do we do?

It is my position that with today’s budget with very modest increases that are consistent with inflation that we can do a human exploration program.  It does not require sacrificing the science or aeronautics side of NASA, but it does require thinking and implementing differently than what we have been doing over the past decade since the demise of the Vision for Space Exploration.  Following are a few thoughts in this area that will govern my own work in the coming year.

Basic Principles in Engineering as Applied to Space

I have been very lucky in my career to have some incredible mentors. One of them was Nick Esser, our engineering manager at Vector Graphic Inc.  I started out in production there as a technician in 1981 and as the company grew rapidly, many of us advanced rapidly.  After running the customer support repair division for almost a year I moved into engineering and was a senior engineering tech for Nick.  That was our job description but we did a lot of design work.

The first project that I really got to sink my teeth into was our local area network card.  We were designing it to be better than Apple talk of the time (1982) and run on the CP/M operating system.  As the project was getting started Nick imparted some engineering wisdom to me that I have used as a guide ever since.  It applied then to our job of electrical engineering but it has general applicability. Paraphrasing from memory it goes like this.

(using our LinkNet network card as the example here)

When you start a design, your job is to get a product out the door as rapidly as practical based on the overall design goals that you are given.  Getting a product out the door as rapidly as is practical means that you don’t just run out and start designing.  You first do your research to see what is out there in the industry.  It may be that there is a board already out there that someone has built that will do the job.  If so, you buy or license the design and move forward as our job is to get a product into production so that it can be sold, not to design a product.

If there is not a product out there that is a fit for your product requirements, is there something close, that can be used to solve the problem and get the product into production.  For us, we first tried out an existing board from a vendor.  It simply did not work and there was nothing else out there that was exactly what we needed.  However, the board that we found was supposed to implement the ARCNet design, which was a token passing Local Area Network protocol invented by a company in Texas called Datapoint.  So our next best thing was to contact the inventor of ARCNet and get him to work with us to design a board that would fulfill our requirements.  This happened and we were able to get the product done in time to demonstrate at COMDEX Atlanta in March of 1983.  Thus over the years I have derived a quasi formalization of the wisdom imparted to me by my engineering boss.

Engineering Rules for Cost Efficient and Shortest Time to Market Development:

Determine what can be used to best solve the problem that you have determined that you have, that may already exist. Your job is not simply to design a product, but to design a solution that works and gets to market as rapidly as practicable.

If something does not exist, what is closest to existing that you can modify  and then use to get your product to market the quickest while meeting your product goals.

If you can’t find something that exists, or something that can be modified from existing products to solve your problem, only then start from scratch.

I have always adhered to these lessons and they have served me well in designing hardware, systems, and entire architectures.  This is how we have been able to do things cheaper and faster, that in many cases like our LOIRP and our ISEE-3 projects, that otherwise could not have been done.  This was the same process I used  when I first came to UAH when instead of designing a specialized computer for a flight project to measure the microgravity inside the Shuttle, we used an existing MacIntosh computer, Labview software, and modified it for flight.  It worked and at less than 1/3rd the price of the next closest system to ours, SAMS.

Now this is not the whole story by any means as you have to have the money and the people to get the job done.  However, the obverse does not apply as can amply be seen in our failed efforts to restart exploration beyond the Earth in the past now 45 years.  We have spent enormous amounts of money and yet we have yet to launch one mission beyond 340 miles up in space since 1972. We have the money, we have the people, we just don’t apply the right principles to solving the problem.

Implementing the Lesson for the New Administration


As I have written about before, just about the perfect policy was that enumerated by Dr. John Marburger in his 2006 Goddard Memorial Speech and G.W. Bush’s original VSE speech.  If we want to be efficient, and get our policy in place, then just pick that one and be done with it.  The economic development of the solar system is a fine policy.

Otherwise you have months of boring meetings where at the end, if you have good people involved, you should come to the same conclusion anyway.  Keep the science only Saganites out of control of the process as if the solar system becomes the exclusive province of science, kiss ever going to Mars goodby.


Also, as I have stated previously, the Human or Space Exploration Initiative of the late 1980’s and early 90’s is a great technical template.  It has to be modified of course as we have a different set of launch vehicles and technology has moved forward, but the essential ideas are a great starting point.  Figure 1 below shows the essential elements of the architectural landscape of that program.

Figure 1: NASA 90 Day Study of the Human Exploration of The Moon and Mars Architectural Template

The biggest problem with the Space Exploration Initiative was that a false idea was planted that it was going to cost $400 billion dollars.  The biggest elements of that was the Space Station Freedom and the Heavy lift launch vehicles.  Well guess what, we now have BOTH of those elements already in place. Figure 2 here is the mission architecture that is based on the space station as an anchor in Low Earth Orbit for lunar missions.

Figure 2: Space Exploration Initiative Lunar Mission Architecture

A lot of money and effort was put into developing the mission architectures and detailed analyses were done for minute details of the implementation of things like aerobraking, lunar lander design, timing of launches, and surface operations.  This is shown in the next two figures, 3 and 4.

Figure 3: Space Station to Lunar Orbit Trajectories

Return Aerobrake Trajectories to the Space Station


Figure 4: Return to the Space Station Aerobraking Maneuvers

This is just the beginning of what is available out there for the Space Exploration Initiative.  I have developed a large personal library of SEI era images, documents, books, and conference papers.  I was a student at the time and went to many of the conferences and was involved in lunar surface research.  I want to develop this in more detail as the year wears on but this is just my scratching the surface of what already exists that we can use in moving forward very rapidly for a return to the Moon.

Architecture Suggestion for Thought

Part of the fight that is going on between “old space” and “new space” concerns the big rocket program, the Space Launch System or SLS.  The question is how to get to a compromise that both the new space and old space people can accept that also allows us to reach a goal of getting humans and robots to the Moon rapidly, and indeed it should be possible to do by the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 or shortly thereafter.

The International Space Station

We have already spent well over $100 billion dollars on an international space station.  It is up there, and we have multiple cargo vehicles servicing it.  Soon we will have multiple private sector crewed vehicles providing human access to space.  It would be insane to just throw that away and start from scratch as if it does not exist.  That violates both rule one and two of good design principles for getting product (exploration beyond LEO) out the door.  This was the problem in letting go the Space Shuttle before we get something else to replace it.  This is why the Shuttle C, when it was possible to do so, would have been a better solution as it met the criterion of rule #2 above.  However, since the Shuttle C possibly is no longer possible, the remaining system is the Space Launch Vehicle.  However, much we may lament the cost and the time to get to where it is today, it is here and to just abandon that in favor of the Falcon heavy is also insane. The biggest real difference between the Space Station Freedom and the ISS is that the dual keel was not implemented for the ISS which was to be the docking and construction facility for the cislunar and Mars vehicles.

We have done various and sundry work regarding doing on orbit assembly at the International Space Station.  As an exercise my young student, Jack McCandless was tasked to take the original NASA On Orbit Assembled space truss from NASA Langley and then implement the skeleton of the dual truss, which was, if you look at the architecture figure above, implemented for a lunar/mars extension to the original Space Station Freedom.  The results are in figure 5 and 6 below.

Figure 5: ISS Dual Keel Version

This ISS model is not exactly right as it has extra modules below the original models that do not exist but it gives an idea of what the dual keel would look like on today’s ISS.

Figure 6: Dual Keel Isometric View

The biggest problem with the ISS today is the lack of places to dock, berth, or attach large payloads.  The dual keel solves this.  It also could solve another problem which is to extend the power of the station.  Extra solar arrays that would be electrically isolated from the existing ISS grid would increase the available power to well over 100 kW peak power, which would be a great addition to the station as a whole.

Space Launch Vehicle (SLS)

Rather than spending all of our time and efforts peeing in each other’s shoe to either get rid of the ISS to free up more spending for payloads for the SLS, or to try and kill the SLS in order to create some new architecture with Falcon Heavies or other commercial vehicles, why not integrate the SLS into an ISS centric architecture?  We could, if we worked it right, solve the biggest problem with the SLS today, which is human rating.  We could transform the SLS into a cargo only vehicle, at least at first, and then we could even fly useful payload on the first EM-1 mission rather than a bunch of cubesats or other payloads of low priority.

There are many payloads that could fly on the SLS that would be useful to exploration, and could fly on the first mission.  One of them would be what was called Node X, which was a spare Boeing built ISS node that never flew.  It originally had a problem but later it was determined that it could be made flight ready with comparatively little effort.  This is shown in figure 7.

Figure 7: NASA MSFC Node X Structural Test Article

This could be outfitted and flown on the first EM-1 mission to the ISS as the core of a Lunar Transfer Vehicle.  Subsequent SLS flights could put a lunar lander in orbit where it would wait for the Lunar Transfer Vehicle to get there with a crew.  The Lunar Transfer Vehicle would be sent to a lunar trajectory either with a NASA EUS upper stage from another SLS launch, or a ULA ACES upper stage.  This is just the beginning of the thought process but the point to be made is that we have a lot of hardware either in place (The ISS), about to be in place (SLS) and other vehicles such as the Falcon heavy and the ULA Vulcan/ACES system.

Just The Beginning of the Thought Process

All of the elements are there to put together a return to the Moon.  It can be done without breaking the bank.  It can also be done without having a huge fight between the space factions today.  It is very important to get a smart NASA administrator in place like congressman Brindenstein that can move out on an architecture like this.  Our team will be doing a lot of work on this type of architectural compromise that could get us back to the Moon rapidly.  Most of my lunar work this year will be working in this direction.  There is a lot of talk, but most of it is each faction of new space old space trying to fight each other for supremacy.  This is a recipe for disaster.

We in the community are our own worst enemies.  It is time to understand, as Ben Franklin once did, “It is time for us to hang together or most assuredly we will all hang separately”.

In finishing, I want to show in figure 8 here my favorite lander, the Boeing lander by Paul Hudson.  This may never fly but it is an exceptional design.  The XEUS from ULA has many things to commend it as well but this is the one that I want to build.  Yes, that is my own weakness toward building something from scratch….


8 thoughts on “Architecture Notes for Sustainable and Affordable Exploration

  1. I don’t see how anyone can predict when we will be ready for a Mars venture and eventually a Mars settlement — no matter how much money would be available. I have been concerned about the space flight cardiovascular problems which occurred on lunar missions, even without considering the confounder of inhalation of very toxic iron-laden dust.
    I believe that to prepare for a Mars mission we should take advantage of microgravity research; with the life span reduced by a factor of 10 in microgravity, animal research can be conducted with less cost and time; for example my proposed 6 month rat study, published in 2016 by the International Journal of Advanced Research.
    Since there is invariable impairment in gastrointestinal absorption, we need a subcutaneous replenishable device to administer minerals, such as magnesium— invariably significantly reduced— and pharmaceuticals.
    A method of duplicating EXACTLY Earth G forces in transit and while exploring is vitally important.
    As to “ colonizing,” effective gene therapy techniques may require ? a century or more of research.
    William J. Rowe MD FBIS FACN (

    1. You raise several important issues. This is again why I support beginning at the Moon rather than the jump to Mars. I am not as worried about the dust as it is something that miners on the Earth deal with all the time. Our tech for cleaning things is much better these days.

      The idea here for the Moon is to develop an industrial capability that will allow us to build interplanetary ships large enough to have variable gravity, up to 1 g. This will solve the microgravity problem in transit to Mars or anywhere else in the solar system. Our recent dramatic advances in additive manufacturing and robotics have changed this equation from science fiction, to merely hard. That is what I am working on this year….

      Thanks for your input!

  2. (dennis, can’t tell if this got transmitted or not, so doing it again).

    I agree that if the DT Administration wants something big and bold – yet intelligent- keying off of Marburger is the key; e.g., stating that the goal is to bring the entire solar system into the economic sphere of humanity by the end of this century, with America leading the charge.

    That has the advantage- politically – of not promising right now immediate big spending increases; BUT, by setting the tone for what the long-term goal truly is, it hopefully can start changing the conversation within the space community and the related body politic away from just ‘what is the next destination goal’, to inherently think long-term, and particularly in terms of long-term sustainable infrastructure, the latter always being sacrificed on the altar of whatever is the Big Project du jour.

    It also allows people like me to have something to hang our hat on when we fight inside the agency to try to re-energize the thing that has been decimated the most in the last 15 years: real space technology R&D, whose goal should be to bring about, for USG and for US industry over the long-term, new, Truly game-changing technologies. How to go about that is something we can reserve for another discussion; but right now we simply need to be allowed to argue for it, and have top cover for doing so.

  3. Can a similar argument be made for sustainable and supportable development? After all, while exploring is great fun it really needs to lead to some sort of development for people to maintain any outward growth.

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