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.


Posted in Economic Development, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Want Versus Need; Space Tourism Vs “Proper” Space Exploration

There is another emerging complaint about the activities of Virgin Galactic that I am seeing that I feel I must address.  This is illustrated in a comment in my rebuttal to the Wired article, but is in the same vein as the Wired article, related to “tourism” and whether or not that is worth risking one’s life on.  On a very shallow surface one might be tempted to separate, as the commenter did (not disparaging, just relating) that there is a difference between developments that need to be done versus those that people want to do.  To me there is absolutely no difference between the two and it is the history of the development of aeronautics that gives me the confidence to make that statement.  I responded to the comment, which I replicate here.  This is not to disparage in the least the writer, but to respond to the larger mindset that I see in other places that is well represented by his comment.

Good response. But I’m still left wondering. Why is it worth dying for? That’s in your title, but it doesn’t appear in the text. “The more we do in space, and this includes the few minutes in space that Space Ship 2 will provide, will do more to promote people to think about what else we can do, and how much farther we can go than perhaps any other activity currently going on in commercial space.” I’m having a hard time parsing that sentence, but I think what you’re saying is that dying in space helps promote people to think. I find that a curious conclusion.

It is correct to risk life to do hard things that NEED TO BE DONE. Not completely clear from your response what it is that needs to be done. Making a settlement on the Moon for $5B certainly doesn’t need to be done. At least, that justification has never been clearly laid out.

This SS2 enterprise is founded on tourism. Is it worth dying so tourists can get a thrill? Actually, risk is often part of thrill, so I have to suspect that this unfortunate episode will actually help marketing for SS2. But marketing SS2 doesn’t need for people to die.

This is my expansion on my reply to his comment.


One person’s want is another person’s need. We did not need barnstorming in the 1920’s but the increase in public interest that was brought from thousands of farmers, city folk, and others who got to fly for the first time in a Jenny helped set the cultural and technological stage for the commercial aerospace age, even though it was the 1970’s before more than 15% of the American public flew.  It was a former barnstormer named Lindbergh that flew a craft that only he could love alone across the Atlantic and thus ushered in the age of intercontinental air travel (and it was for a cash prize no less, and was the inspiration for the Ansari X-Prize won by Spaceship 1, the predecessor to the SS2 lost this week)

There is a book that illustrates the intertwinement of want and need that is about the foundation of what we call aeronautics. It is called “With Brass and Gas” and a couple of quotes from this book, which is a compendium of newspaper and other articles of the era on the subject of want/need in opening the frontier of the air…

With Brass and Gas; a Look at the Formative Age of Aeronautics

With Brass and Gas; a Look at the Formative Age of Aeronautics

…In the meantime, balloon ascensions have grown to be of a daily occurrence, and many who have had no experience whatsoever are rushing madly into the business. As a necessary consequence, we must expect to read of many deplorable casualties. In yesterday’s Herald we had accounts of two ascensions which were attended with great risks to the aeronauts. In the one case, the balloon exploded; but in descending to the earth, it acted as a parachute, breaking the force of the fall…

The aerial excursionist were perfectly cool, and conversed together during the descent. But for the few seconds after the explosion, when the car and the remnants of the balloon were swaying alternately above each other, their fears could not be suppressed.

In the other, the balloon was torn by coming in contact with trees, and those in the car narrowly escaped with their lives.  The business is now in danger of being entirely overdone, and thus confidence in the final success of aerial navigation, instead of being increased, is being much diminished.

The point is that these people think that it is worth dying for, no matter what you or I may think.  This is at the end of the day what it is about.  The freedom to experiment, the freedom to fail, and yes, the inevitable deaths that will occur along the way. It was exactly the same in the era of ballooning, but at the beginning of the civil war it was the technologies developed by the aeronauts and their balloons that gave the north a decided advantage in aerial surveillance.

A LOT of people died in the ballooning age and a majority were experimentalists that made their living servicing tourism.  Read the book for the incredibly interesting details of how this developed.  The term “aeronaut” and “aeronautics” was invented by these balloonists and the journalists that wrote about them.  Thousands of people followed their exploits, and yes their critics were of the same vein as my commenter above.  However, what they could not see from the immediacy of the day, what in hindsight has been shown to be incredibly important precursors to our entire modern society of rapid air and even space travel.

Also, it was the technology advances of the private aeronauts like Thaddeus P. Lowe that echo down to the day. The Water-Gas shift method of making hydrogen C + H2O + heat = CO + H2, which is the preferred method of making industrial hydrogen today was invented to make gas for balloons.  It was also the limitations of balloons, such as the almost complete inability to accurately steer them that started a many people, including a couple of bicycle shop owners thinking about powered flight.

Thus the life of a private aeronaut, who used tourism to fuel the revenues for his further experimentation in balloons for practical cargo type operations.

Here is his Wikipedia entry…

Also, in one of those incredible “Connections” type of completely unpredictable historical amazing effects, Pancho Barnes, who (if you remember the movie the right stuff), who owned the happy bottom riding club outside of Muroc (now Edwards AFB in Palmdale) was the GRANDDAUGHTER of Thaddeus Lowe. She was an amazing female pilot of the barnstorming age, who in her Wikipedia page…

Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes (July 22, 1901 – March 30, 1975) was a pioneer aviator, the founder of the first movie stunt pilots’ union. In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record.[2] Barnes raced in the Women’s Air Derby and was a member of the Ninety-Nines. In later years, she was known as the owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar and restaurant in the Mojave Desert, Southern California, catering to the test pilots and aviators who worked nearby.[2]

Thus the point is that you and I today have absolutely no idea where this will end up and what the contribution of SS2 and Virgin Galactic will be to humanity. As was the case in the ballooning age and the barnstorming age of airplanes, these activities helped to provide the foundation for our technological society today.  Thus there can be no separation between want and need in the context of tourism versus exploration or any other endeavor for that matter as we never know where one or the will lead.

The same is true about the comment regarding the $5 billion for a lunar development.  You may not see that it needs to be done but many of us who give our lives to these types of activities certainly do.  I am quite positive, especially after meeting him several years ago, that Richard Branson sees a vision that goes well beyond just the tourism aspect of the Spaceship 2 flights.  Richard in his heart harkens back to the barnstormers and he has much of the showman of that age in him, and that is a good thing.

All of us are looking to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible as we know that these advances will help to continue mankind’s upward move.  This is what is amazing about freedom, we who want to do things have the right to do them, and if there are those who go with us, who are willing to risk their time, their fortunes, their honor, and yes their lives, who is there to demand that we not do so?  Or worse yet, to demand that we expend our energies on projects that others think more worthy, thus making us slaves, and not free men and women.

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Rebuttal to The Wired Article: Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For

The Space Ship 2 Disaster is bringing out the worst in journalism.  In this latest article in Wired magazine an attempt is made to separate exploration in space from what the writer considers to be the crass commercial aspect of the Virgin Galactic Space Ship 2 and from what he considers legitimate space exploration.  It is clear that the writer does not understand that Richard Branson has what we call in the space business a roadmap to more ambitious and practical human spaceflight applications (Replace the Pan Am Logo in the movie 2001 with the Virgin Logo).  He also does not even consider the other aspect which is the effect on those who take these trips to inspire and fire their own visions to support future space enterprises.  As one who does this day by day, our biggest problem is money, and government money is not the way to lead to the economic development of the solar system.  Thus here is my response to his article:

For reference here is the link to his article:


Adam, your article is an attempt to provide a moral separation between what Virgin Galactic is doing and what Elon Musk and or the government is doing.  Your central claim is that what Virgin Galactic is doing is not getting us closer to Mars.  In this, as a thirty six year space professional with a commercial space pedigree, you are absolutely incorrect.

There is a huge problem that we have today and that is the lack of vision and forward thinking in leadership positions in government.  In the late 1960’s, even before the first man walked on the Moon, congress and the white house cut the funding for the Apollo program sufficient to end the production of the Saturn V.  The excuse of the day was deficits, but that is a laugh when the deficit that year was $5 billion dollars.  The truth is the money was redirected due to the fear that captured the political elite of the era in control of the government due to the Vietnam war and the problems in our inner cities.

This redirection was not just from NASA’s budget, it affected basically all advanced technology development that the WWII generation put into play in the 50’s and early 60’s. Government advanced technology development has never really recovered.  Politicians soon figured out that this redirected money bought votes, and thus piled on more, and have done so for the last 47 years.  Today American  federal policy is little more than figuring out new programs that will enable the buying of even more votes.

You need look no farther than the space program since then for evidence of this.  While the vote buying budget increased by orders of magnitude, space exploration and advanced technology funding has continually shrunk as a proportion of the federal budget.  This is shown here in Table 1, in which I took NASA’s budget and normalized it to one and then normalized the rest in relation to NASA.  Almost every major government major activity has increased relative to NASA’s since 1966.

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

In the late 1980’s the Space Exploration Initiative failed because NASA came up with visionary plans, but congress, claiming increased deficits, never funded the program.  The exact same thing has recently happened with George Bush Jr.’s Vision for Space Exploration, and the Constellation program.  Presidential and congressional commissions one after the other point out that the funding does not match what NASA has been asked to do, and thus with every new failure, the chance of ultimate success of a government directed space program gets smaller.

Now comes the new century.  A new generation of companies, run by a new generation of business people, go public and billionaires are made.  Some of these people, like Elon Musk and Richard Branson, want to make space accessible to more people.  You go out of your way to separate what Elon is doing from what Richard is doing but this separation simply does not exist.

The reason that it does not exist is that with the government’s level of disinterest in space increasing it falls to those with vision and who have capital to risk to pick up the slack.  Richard Branson is not just making a tourist vehicle.  Virgin is developing a launch vehicle that uses the same infrastructure to put small satellites into space.  Richard has also talked about, as a second, third, or fourth generation of Space Ship technology to build vehicles that can take paying passengers from London to Tokyo, Beijing, or Sydney in 90 minutes.  As a man who owns an airline with a global reach Richard also tried to buy the Concordes for the reason to make airline travel faster but was rebuffed by British Airways and Air France who did not want to see him succeed where they failed.  He sees the Space Ship X technology as a means to leapfrog around this obstacle as he has found ways around obstacles in the past.

Yes it will be richer people who fly these routes, at least initially, just as was the case in the early age of intercontinental air travel.  However, there is something else that will result from these flights.  That something else is to fire the imagination of the rich people that fly these routes to think about what to do next.  Fly higher?  Orbital Space?  The Moon?

Very recently I spent a day at a major Silicon Valley venture capitalist’s office with about 40 others examining the idea of how we would build a commercial lunar development on the Moon for ten people for five billion dollars.  A couple of decades ago such talk was silly, but with the march of commercial technology in launch, robotics, computers, and communications, this is now a realistic possibility.  All it takes is for a few people like this, who have the vision, and the financial resources, to make it happen.  I know that at least one of these billionaires already has purchased tickets for a Space Ship 2 flight.

Thus the value of the Space Ship 2 flights, and the sacrifice of a good man’s life, is to help show people what is possible, to allow them to experience it, and perhaps to have their imaginations fired to put some of their fortunes up to support more commercial space activities.  The government sadly is not on a trajectory to do so, and in many ways they should not be.  The economic development of the solar system should not be a state owned and directed enterprise as they simply are not competent to do so.

The last 47 years since congress and the white house turned its back on funding the space program the way it should have been is all the proof of my proposition that is needed.  Just think how much different our world would be today had the same percentage (about 4.5%) of the federal budget continued to be spent on space development.  Most of the problems that we have today simply would not exist, as we would be much farther along in exploration and the benefits to the economy would have provided the increase in economic activity to fund many of the pressing needs that are otherwise bankrupting the treasury.

Without vision the people perish is a biblical truth that applies universally.  The more we do in space, and this includes the few minutes in space that Space Ship 2 will provide, will do more to promote people to think about what else we can do, and how much farther we can go than perhaps any other activity currently going on in commercial space.  I love what Elon is doing and I am one of his biggest supporters, but for a long time, that is only going to provide rides to space for a very small number of people.  If we can fly several hundred rich people a year into suborbital space, it will change them.

Frank White wrote about this in his book “The Overview Effect” 25 years ago regarding how the astronauts have had their perspectives changed after their flights.

Frank White's "The Overview Effect"

Frank White’s “The Overview Effect”

What we need in commercial space today more than anything else is money.  The government simply is not going to do what needs to be done, and thus we must convince men and women of capital to do so.  The sight of the Earth from a 100 km altitude by rich people may do more to help provide that capital than any other single activity and thus will help to truly open the space frontier for all mankind.

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 63 Comments

Thoughts on the SS2 Crash

There is so much disinformation and lack of information going on regarding the SS2 crash and their choice of engines, that I am going to take a major risk and jump into the discussion.  I have not been a part of their team but I know many many of the players and worked with some of the people who were there in the beginning.  Hopefully we can raise the signal to noise level a bit regarding what happened.  This is a slight modification of what I wrote in a thread today.

This is also specifically in response to a Reddit thread on Joel Brenner’s appearance on CNN yesterday.


As someone who worked with many rocket scientists, and who has designed the power systems and avionics for, and worked with those who have built and fired engines, let me say this.

Burt Rutan with the original Spaceship 1 brought in the hybrid engine design SPECIFICALLY because it was sold to him as being the safest type of engine. A hybrid engine with a solid fuel and a liquid oxidizer has the ability to be shut down like a fully liquid engine, without some of the problems that come from a fully liquid or solid design.

That was the theory. The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing (at our current level of technical maturity) as a perfectly safe rocket engine. ALL rocket engines are an exercise in design compromises between cost, operability, and complexity as integrated into the larger system.

I worked with the German rocket scientists in Huntsville Alabama and they (specifically Konrad Dannenberg) told me that one of the reasons we were successful in our engine selection and reliability of the Saturn V launch vehicle was that when they were at Peenemunde they literally built and tested engines with every single combination of chemicals. The Germans did not use solid propellants as for launch vehicles solids are low performance with poor total impulse and hybrids were never seriously considered due to the nature of the chemical industry in Germany at the time.

Hybrid engines do not have the pedigree of either all solid engines or all liquid engines in terms of number of hours of operation. Many observers, myself included have stated that an all liquid design might be better for their application. HOWEVER, we are not on the ground with them, nor do we have full insight into the compromises that have be be made (ANY ENGINEERING DESIGN INVOLVES COMPROMISES) for the application of suborbital tourism with that type of airframe.

Joel Brenner is a friend of mine as well but she is not an engineer and thus listening to many armchair (or professional) rocket scientists discussing the SS2 system design, she does not have the experience to judge the nuances involved when you are in the room with the engineers working the design at the system level.

I know for a 100% certain fact that for Burt Rutan (and I was present at 2 out of the 3 test flights of Space Ship 1) safety was and is always paramount to any design that he does or is involved with. His safety record with composite aircraft is stellar and it is a testimony to his talent that composites are now taking over the entire aircraft industry (the Boeing 787 is the latest implementation).

In terms of an all liquid design, which is what many armchair rocket scientists (as well as professional) say that VG should use, the answer is not at all as clear cut as some would declare.  They are not a walk in the park.  Just take a look back at our friends at SpaceX.  They lost their first three vehicles from various issues related to propulsion systems.  Just this past week a mature all liquid design flown by Orbital Science failed 16 seconds after launch.  In the early days of rocketry we lost far more vehicles than made it to orbit.  As in no other business developing vehicles that travel from the surface of the Earth, from zero velocity to space, has never been easy.

When we were (at Space America in the late 1990’s), developing a pressure fed LOX/RP-1 engine, which is basically the simplest possible liquid engine it was not a cake walk.  Not only did we blow them up (even with the technical backing of several incredibly experienced Huntsville rocket scientists involved) at the test site on the stands, we blew the engines clean off the vehicle on the pad in the west Texas desert.  We did this when there was only five moving parts in the entire vehicle.  Here is a picture of us there in the desert.  Note that this is the same site that Jeff Bezos later purchased for Blue Origin.

Space America Iron Bird 1

Space America Iron Bird 1

An all solid design is basically a non starter due to the safety problems of not being able to turn it off after it is lit.

If you look at the many companies that have come into being and then failed trying to build launch vehicles for unmanned payloads much less humans, the only conclusion to draw is that it is an incredibly complex engineering problem where not only do you have to get the small things right, you have to get all of the small things right and the big ones as well.

A choice at the power point level or even preliminary design can doom you to failure years later because of an unwarranted assumption.  This is what happened to NASA in the Ares 1 design that was part of the constellation program.  Some would claim that the choice of a hybrid design fell prey to the unwarranted assumption that a hybrid was inherently safe.  This may be true.  However, even if true it does not imply either incompetence or malice as sometimes the only way to find out these things is to build and fly them.  Many lives were lost trying to break the sound barrier simply because we did not understand that a taller tail would provide more stability at the sound barrier pressure interface.  An X-15 crashed just a few miles away from where SS2 crashed as we continued to learn about space.

Thus the point to be made is that there is no such thing as an inherently safe rocket engine (as the Antares disaster earlier in the week testifies to), and that there is nothing  inherently unsafe about the design of a hybrid engine. My friend Joel Brenner allowed the emotion of the moment to get the best of her in her CNN interview and it is probably not good to ask questions of people who are deeply involved in the heat of the moment.

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Site Selection for Lunar Industrialization, Economic Development, and Settlement


The subject of a lunar landing site/outpost/base has been explored extensively. Due to the cost and complexity involved, until now this has been almost the exclusive domain of government. In the United States we have gone through at least three generations of work in this area since the Apollo era. The vast majority of these plans and projects have been science driven, and scientific priorities have governed site selection and architecture. The general purpose here is to develop something fundamentally different. The general question to be investigated is; what would a non- governmental lunar development look like, premised upon economic development, industrialization and settlement? The specific purpose here is to zero in on a location so that further development and cost estimation can begin soon.

The question of lunar development and its importance was discussed in an exceptional activity at a major Silicon Valley venture capital office in August of 2014. Over 40 participants, most of whom have spent their careers in engineering, the sciences, and finance, were gathered to discuss the subject of what would a privately financed installation, to the tune of $5 billion dollars, to be operational by the end of the year 2022 look like? The 2022 project milestone would be a permanently inhabited installation that would initially house at least ten people on extended tours. Discussions were held about cost, implementation, economic activity, and so forth and it was encouraging to see how quickly, with the parameters enumerated, the various participants came to a consensus on the path forward. This missive will discuss site selection within the larger context of the overall project goal.


For lunar/mars exploration a loose taxonomy has been defined for classes of installations. These definitions have shifted with the direction of the political winds for NASA’s exploration program and so a definition of terms is important.


A sortie mission is a short duration stay with little or no infrastructure at a single or multiple locations. The Apollo missions fall into this class.


An outpost is a semi-permanent facility. It has habitats for humans, equipment for facility development, scientific exploration capabilities, and the like. However, it is not normally continuously manned, and the stays by the crew are short term (days/weeks vs months/years). This is the general style of facility described by NASA for a presence on the Moon and Mars over the last decade, though the same term was used for a much more robust presence during the Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) in the 1980’s and early 90’s. Also the crew is small with all members brought in or leaving on one flight.


This term was used originally all the way back into the pre Apollo era (1959) U.S. Army Horizons report. The Von Braun authored report (vol 1), (vol 2)had a large initial crew (12 men), carried to the Moon via a large modular and reusable vehicle assembled in Earth orbit. A base is continually occupied, has many occupants, and is used for science and other activities (a military base in the Horizon report). This is also the class of facility that was illustrated in the science fiction television show “Space 1999”.


The term development, from a mental imagery standpoint goes well beyond anything that government studies have focused on. However, these have been defined extensively in science fiction. Usually the word base or outpost is used. However, these are limiting in their imagery to what is possible for a commercial site. However, it is also premature hubris to call a lunar development a city. The German rocket scientist Krafft Ehricke went further than anyone with his “Selenopolis” as a city on the Moon. Of the three words in the title, at this time, the favored word is development. Development has many connotations but the foremost mental image is one of growth. We do developments all the time on the Earth for many purposes, thus this term gives freedom and while a development can and should encompass the requirements of science; it is not defined by them.

There are many different types of developments on the Earth. There are housing, industrial, mining, retail, commerce, sports, basically any type of, well development. Since it is our goal not to overly constrain the vision of those who embark on this quest, this missive will use the term development, and here is the definition in the current context.

Mixed Use

There are many examples of mixed use developments on Earth. In our context the mixed use incorporates industry, commerce, settlement, science, communications, transportation, and settlement.


It is becoming increasingly clear that our space based civilization will have a population of robots far larger than the human population. The development will begin this way out of the necessity to constrain costs, but will continue with its human population after the initial site preparation and construction has been completed. This is really not much different than a terrestrial development as heavy equipment for construction is required here on the Earth well before a development has its initial occupancy. The initial occupancy will be as few as two people to start and grow to its initial stage (the 2022 deadline) of ten people. Beyond that the growth in humans will be organic, growing as demand for humans increases. My opinion is that the demand for local humans will be great and we could see as many as hundreds by the year 2030 and thousands of robots. Beyond that there will be new developments located in many places on the Moon.

Sustainable (Not Self Sufficient)

Sustainable means that the development does not require constant resupply of everything needed in order to thrive. This means the massive implementation of Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and in situ manufacturing/farming to reduce the logistics burden and offset costs. No Earthly city is entirely self sufficient but they are sustainable. A desirable definition would be to generate enough economic output to justify its existence. Using this definition the U.S. Antarctic base is not sustainable, thus falls within the taxonomy listed here for base. It is the goal of the development on the Moon to be sustainable in that the economic product output exceeds the operational cost. The lunar development does not have to do this initially, but it is the absolute goal to do so. A path to exponential growth is strongly desired. As in any investment the goal is to develop a thriving economic ecosystem. Thus in this work we are aiming for a development.

Economic Output

A development must have an economy.  Not just an internal economy that offsets costs, but one where there is economic output that justifies the investment.  This also integrates the definition of sustainable because at the end of the day, without economic output our development just becomes Detroit (an American city who’s economy and population collapsed as its economic output nose dived) on the Moon.  What economic output is in detail will be left up to follow ons to this missive, but can and should be extensive.  In 2004 when president George W. Bush gave his speech on the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE), he made an astounding statement that was little noticed, then ignored by NASA but bears repeating here.

Establishing an extended human presence on the moon could vastly reduce the costs of further space exploration, making possible ever more ambitious missions. Lifting heavy spacecraft and fuel out of the Earth’s gravity is expensive. Spacecraft assembled and provisioned on the moon could escape its far lower gravity using far less energy, and thus, far less cost. Also, the moon is home to abundant resources. Its soil contains raw materials that might be harvested and processed into rocket fuel or breathable air. We can use our time on the moon to develop and test new approaches and technologies and systems that will allow us to function in other, more challenging environments. The moon is a logical step toward further progress and achievement.

It is my strong opinion that the sustainable development of a colony on Mars (advocated by Elon Musk and others, including myself), if not impossible, is far more costly without the support of a industrial and manufacturing development on the Moon.  Thus the Moon becomes an integral part of the economic development of the solar system.

These are all farther term grand economic schemes, however, the lunar development must have near term economic development as well.  There are many ways to do this, that we will address in follow on missives.  The thing to be established is that the sense of purpose is not to just be a place like our Antarctic bases but to define it a place of commerce, industry, and growth.

Lunar Development Site Selection Requirements

Requirements Development

Each type of site as we defined in the previous section has its set of requirements but we are only focusing on our development. Our lunar development has a lot of implied requirements but these are all constrained and defined by the input parameters of the discussion at the team meeting at the VC firm. These are called in NASA parlance, level zero requirements, or the project goals. All lower level (usually level 1 requirements are the highest functional level and then the lower level requirements are 2,3,4 and so on) requirements must adhere to during the development of a detailed plan.   Thus the level zero requirements are as follows:

  • Approximately $5 billion in development costs.
  • Operational by the end of 2022.
  • Economically sustainable as a core value with exponential growth possible.

These are the only real requirements for the project, but they are profoundly different than any government directed lunar plan, most specifically bullet three. These requirements flow down to all the rest of the requirements and influence how the architecture unfolds. In this missive I only go as far as site selection underpinned by the philosophical approach. Site selection is crucial, thus outline of what is required there in order to provide context for site selection.

Factors Influencing Site Selection

By definition any site selection must be constrained by the level zero requirements. Thus right away nuclear reactors are out due to development costs. Economic sustainability implies considerable power, because without energy there is no economic activity. Energy is life, work, air, resource extraction, processing, and communications, everything that you must have for a development. Thus if nuclear reactors are out, and plentiful energy is a must, then this begins to dramatically constrain and inform the architecture, site, and design of the lunar development.

Energy as a Site Selection Constraint

A lunar Synodic month is 29.5 days. A synodic month is the time it takes the moon to return to the same position in the sky relative to the sun, and thus this is the time period of interest, not the 27 day lunar orbit around the Earth. This is ~708 hours, the most important number for energy generation for solar power, which is the only viable alternative to nuclear in a cost constrained development.

In all areas of the Moon except for the polar regions, a lunar day is equivalent to its month. With a 708 hour day we have a night time of 354 hours, thus in any non polar area we not only have to supply power during the day, we have to supply it from some form of storage at night and have enough power surplus during the next day to recharge the energy storage system for the next night. This requirement drove NASA to select nuclear power, and it is one of the things that helped drive the cost of the NASA Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) of the 1980’s over the edge of what congress would pay.  Table 1 shows the difference in power available.

Table 1: Available Power Calculation, Non Polar, North and South Pole Sites

Table 1: Available Power Calculation, Non Polar, North and South Pole Sites

The analysis above is with a 100 kilowatt power supply. We used known factors of day and night, and averaged over the 708 hour period with enough reserve to recharge the energy storage system (not presuming what the storage system is). The average power available is 23. 5 kilowatts for a non polar location. This is clearly inadequate when you consider that the average power on the ISS is about 25-30 kilowatts for six people and little energy intensive activity. Listed here is a selection of sites with known illumination at the lunar poles in the paper by [Mazarico et al., 2011].[i] Figure 1 shows the numbers associated with the sites:

Figure 1: Sites of Maximum Illumination for North (a) and South (b) Polar Regions

Figure 1: Sites of Maximum Illumination for North (a) and South (b) Polar Regions

Site 35 on the (a) map roughly indicates the north lunar pole. The southern lunar pole is to the upper right of site 4 along the crater rim of Shackleton crater. Based on previous work site 1 in the south (1S) and site 2 (2N) on the intersection of the rim of Whipple and Peary craters in the north were chosen.[i] These sites are representative of the best areas in their respective polar regions.

Site 2 North

It turns out that 2N in the north has a total illumination of 598.7 hours of illumination out of a total of 708 hours a total of 84.56% of the time. The time in darkness is only 109.32 hours, well less than a third of non polar sites. This makes a dramatic difference in the power profile. The total energy available rises from 35.4 megawatt hours to 59.9 megawatt hours at ground level and 61.2 megawatt hours a mere 10 meters above the surface. This raises the average hourly energy available to 66.5 kW/hr at ground level and 69.46 kW/hr at 10 meters altitude. This is almost three times the power of a non polar site for the same hardware.

Site 1 South

At site 1S in the south the numbers are better than in the north. The total sunlit time rises to 89.01%, which gives a total energy of 63.0 MW/hr on the ground and 65.9 MW/hr at 10 meters altitude. This gives an average power provided to the facility per hour of 73.68 kw/hr at ground level and 80.61 at ten meters altitude. This is considerably better than some of the previous studies on the subject and is 116% of the average at site 2 north and well over three times that of a non polar site.


If cost minimization and maximum power production are requirements, then it is not even a competition between the polar regions and other areas of the Moon. The difference between the north polar location 2 and the south polar location 1 is substantial, about 7.2 kW/hr at ground level and 11.2 kW/hr at ten meters. If the terrain in the southern region were better this would indicate a clear win for the south polar location. Figure 2 shows a notional “Power Lander” that would have solar arrays that would track the sun in a 360 degree angle at the poles:

Figure 2: Power Landers On the Moon

Figure 2: Power Landers On the Moon

The power lander shown in Figure 2 was designed for a commercial lunar architecture. The vehicle can land approximately 100 kilowatts of solar panels, batteries, and the power conditioning system (480 volts, 60 Hz AC) can simply be plugged into using flight qualified variations of today’s standard plugs. The launch vehicle for this would be a Delta IVH or a Falcon heavy launcher.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to go into detail but our analysis showed that for a viable development on the Moon that could generate significant economic output, at least seven of these would be needed. The average power at site 2N would be about 428 MW/hr total or and hourly average of 486 kW/hr. At site 1S it would be 461 MW/hr and 564 kW/hr respectively.  For a non polar site this same hardware would only generate 248 MW/hr total and 162.75 kW/hr average.

Some of these same locations at the poles that are in full illumination on a seasonal basis depending on where the Moon is at in its 18 year processional cycle. The Mazarico paper illustrates this feature. It has also been theorized that at certain heights above the terrain, above 100 meters, there is full time illumination at both sites. However, for the purposes of this study we will use the average numbers.

An argument can be made, and was at the event, that power is not everything, that resources are important as well. This is a true statement, but without power, resources are worthless. Indeed, your ability to obtain and process resources is directly proportional to your available power. You can always drive to the resources, which will be required no matter where you are sited, but fortunately the vast majority of the volatile resources of the Moon are nearby the sites chosen. We will deal with resources in a following section but next we deal with communications.


Communications is another subject for a lunar site that gets people excited, which usually ends up with bigger ideas which cost a lot more money. With two constraints, one being money, and the other time, what can we do to maximize communications and how does this effect the site selection process? Figure 3 is another graphic from the [Mazarico et al., 2011] paper:

Figure 3: Average Visibility of the Earth from Lunar Polar Regions (a) N, (b) S.

Figure 3: Average Visibility of the Earth from Lunar Polar Regions (a) N, (b) S.

As figure 3 indicates, neither 1S or 2N sites are particularly good from the standpoint of Earth communications. 22N in the north and 33 S in the south both have better visibility and are both in high illumination areas. One thing that is for sure, in this day and age, high bandwidth communications is a must. NASA recently tested the LADEE laser communications link in lunar orbit with a 622 megabits/s downlink data rate. This technology is maturing fast and can be considered the fat data pipe to and from the Earth. A conservative 10 gigabits/s would be for phase 1 (through ten people) of the lunar development.

There are basically two choices that the lunar development architect has when looking at the two sites in terms of communications. The first is to choose a ground based or a space based communications infrastructure. It is quite clear that there will be one dedicated lander at the development site that has the high bandwidth laser-com system. What is not clear at this level of effort, is whether that is the systems solution that lowers the overall cost of the development. The easiest answer is to just have a relay in Earth/Moon L1 and be done with it. That would work for either 1S or 2N. However, that is a single point systems failure that one would like to avoid. An interesting compromise would be to place the laser relay at 22N or 33S. Neither has 100% connectivity to the Earth but there is a side benefit. If you have a set of RF relays at both 1S/33S or 2N/22N you can cover hundreds of square km for local wireless communications and you get ranging as well.

With one station you only get ranging distance to a rover, digger, or water harvester that may be in a permanently dark area, but with two with good separation (tens of km) you have a much more accurate system. Couple this with a technology such as ultra-wideband radio, which can operate at much higher powers on the Moon than the Earth and you get a very wide area communications and ranging system. This argues for two stations at 33S or 22N which can be used to extend the data rate to the Earth when needed, especially for tele-presence operations.

So, in terms of site selection communications is a draw. A much more detailed systems analysis is needed but to the first order a couple of communications stations, coupled with a single satellite in Earth/Moon L1, should deliver all the needed communications for the lunar development.


General Lunar Resources

The moon is rich with resources. Table 2 shows the bulk percentages:[iii]

Table 2: Composition of Lunar Landing Sites in Elemental Percentages

Table 2: Composition of Lunar Landing Sites in Elemental Percentages


The elemental compositions in table 2 are from the Apollo (A11-17), and Luna (16, 20, 24) landing sites. The AFHT in the table is from [Korotev et al., 2003] and represents an average of highlands material as derived from studying lunar meteorites. The problem is that these elements are bound to pesky oxygen molecules. Table 3 shows the Average in molecular percentages:[iv]

Table 3: Apollo/Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Table 3: Apollo/Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Finally, from the same chapter in Resources of Near Earth Space, in table 4 are the molecular constituents of highlands rocks:

Table 4: Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Table 4: Lunar Composition of Lunar Soils, Rocks, and Minerals Fractions

Both polar regions of the moon are considered highlands regions so table 2 with AFHT and table 4 are the closest datasets that we have. These are just bulk compositions but they should inform the reader that there are far more resources on the Moon than just water. The issue with resources is having enough energy to do the work to separate the oxygen from the metals. Whether or not there is significant repositories of water ice and other hydrogen bound molecules of economic interest in the lunar polar regions, these metal oxides abound. There are also free metals on the moon from the impact of M class asteroids. Some Apollo samples had up to 1% metals in the regolith. This was a highlands sample from Apollo 16 and since both poles are highlands type sites, this will also be a resource, but it is also a draw from our perspective here in determining a site for the lunar development. There is no easy method of extracting metals from oxygen without a lot of electrical, thermal, or chemical energy. However, with the up to 1% free metals from meteorites in this highlands terrain, scooping up regolith and processing it for metals and volatiles is the safe bet for the first go at ISRU. Then there are the rich polar volatile resources that we are just learning about.

Volatiles in the Polar Regions

Figure 4 illustrates our state of knowledge about volatiles on the Moon:[v]

Figure 4: What We Know about Volatiles on the Moon

Figure 4: What We Know about Volatiles on the Moon

This is another thing that differentiates the polar region from any other area of the Moon. Water and or other volatiles are the game changer for building an economically sustainable lunar development. Water, or at least hydrogen which can then be bonded with oxygen to make water, is incredibly valuable on the Moon. Today it costs about $100,000 per kilo for a payload to the lunar surface. Sending water up from the ground has another issue, which is that it is the hydrogen that you want, not the oxygen due to the plenteous nature of oxygen on the Moon. Oxygen is 31 times heavier than hydrogen and thus if you ship water, you are wasting a lot of payload space. Hydrogen sent up has the problems with keeping liquid hydrogen cold at 20 degrees kelvin, which equals expensive, thus if you have hydrogen bearing molecules on the Moon costs can be dramatically reduced.

Rather than go into an extensive examination of the literature on the subject lets remain focused on the point here, which is to determine whether the north 2N, or the south 1S is superior from the perspective of access to what we think are the sources of H bearing molecules on the Moon. Figure 5 shows the extent of Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSRs), which are indicative of thermal conditions fostering the retention of hydrogen bearing molecules [Mazarico et al., 2011]:

Figure 5: Permanently Shadowed Regions (Average Over 4 Precession Cycles)

Figure 5: Permanently Shadowed Regions (Average Over 4 Precession Cycles)

According to the paper, the total PSR area in the northern polar region is 12,866 sq/km while in the south it is estimated at 16,055. The PSR area in the south is much higher than the previous estimates that our team has used [Bussey et al., 2003]. The PSR area in the south is 2.5 times larger in this paper than in the previous work so the discrepancy must be further investigated. Table 5 from the paper shows the size distribution of PSRs in each polar region:

Table 5: Size Distribution of PSRs For Both Poles

Table 5: Size Distribution of PSRs For Both Poles

The area of the PSRs is substantial at both poles. The much larger size of the south polar region PSRs could be checked against the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3) 3 micron absorption bands.[vi] There is another means whereby to test the theory about volatiles in the PSR regions of the Moon. Figure 6 shows the results of radar imaging from the Indian Chandryaan-1 Mini-SAR radar:[vii]

Figure 6: Circular Polarization Ratio (CPR) of the Northern Region of the Moon

Figure 6: Circular Polarization Ratio (CPR) of the Northern Region of the Moon

The above map showing the circular polarization return (CPR) of the Moon’s northern region [Spudis, et al., 2010] and this can be mapped against the PSR values. The Spudis paper differentiates between fresh craters that also would have high CPR values due to scattering of the radar beam by fresh material, and high CPR values from other craters that may be water ice or other hydrogen bearing molecules. The Mini-SAR data indicates its presence in the northern and southern polar regions. This also can be checked against data gathered by the M3 instrument [Pieters et al. 2009] that discovered mobile water and hydroxyls that drift from the lower to the higher latitudes of the Moon. A good study would be to harmonize the results of these works as part of the lunar development’s mission planning.

Besides these higher values for hydrogen bearing molecules in the polar regions in the PSR regions, the entire area has an elevated level of these resources (10-100x the equatorial regions [see table 3 hydrogen ppm]). These elevated numbers indicate that even modest processing of bulk regolith will provide between 1-10 kg of mostly water per square meter of regolith near the poles. While this may not be enough (without extensive regolith movement and cooking) for propulsion, it would easily be enough to provide the crew health and other water needs for the development while the infrastructure is still building up to acquire the higher order resources from the PSR sites in the craters.

In winding up this section on resources it seems that we still have no clear winner between a site at 1S or 2N. This was unexpected and the new results from figure 5 indicate that if you strictly look at PSR values the 1S site is better. However, we know from some of the other remote sensing that the north has the most hydrogen bearing molecules. One thing that might tip the scales to the north is the plentiful nature of small PSR regions. No one has ever built a rover or any other equipment that can operate for long periods of time in temperatures not much higher than liquid hydrogen. This is going to be probably the biggest technical challenge of the entire project. On the other hand the small PSR regions in the north could enable a “dine and dash” strategy where the water capturing equipment dashes into the PSR area grabs a large chunk of the resource and then dashes back out into the sunlight. This would reduce the energy required for heating the unit and could minimize the risk of the infrared heat of the equipment destabilizing the ices themselves.


To me operations is the most interesting aspect of a lunar development. After sorting through the issues of power, communications, and resources, operations makes or breaks the success of the effort. The term operations in this context, comprises all of the things necessary to make the development work. The bullet points covering the scope of operations are as follows.

  • Earth/Moon Transportation
  • Site Preparation and Buildup
  • Local Communications
  • Resource Acquisition
  • Energy Management
  • Long Term Growth

Site selection heavily influences all of the above operational issues and the purpose of early site selection is to lower development cost and maximize the potential upside. Optimizing for only one parameter is guaranteed to drive up the cost of the others. Examining each of the above we can arrive at a gestalt that informs our decision related to which site has the most potential for future lunar development.

Earth/Moon Transportation

Payloads and the transportation network between the Earth and the Moon dominate the capital cost of a lunar development. A significant level of buildup activity must occur before any significant revenue can be generated; this costs time and money. Another thing that costs time and money is scheduling. The polar regions are much better for transportation due to the orbital dynamics involved, as you can launch at any time from the Earth, landing three days later. For non polar sites the wait time averages two weeks for the Earth and the Moon to get properly aligned for a low energy (lower cost) mission. Ironically, we continue with the 50/50 split between the 1S and 2N sites as the energy to each location is identical.

Site Preparation and Buildup

Site preparation and buildup sets the pace for the future success of the lunar development. Mobility, the ability to move around while expending a minimum of energy, is a key determinate for early success. Figure 7 shows a 3X exaggerated terrain for both the north and south polar regions up to 2.5 degrees from the poles:

Figure 7a: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the North Pole

Figure 7a: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the North Pole

Figure 7b: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the South Pole

Figure 7b: LOLA 10 Meter Gridded Terrain from 87.5 Degrees to the South Pole

These LOLA gridded terrain maps were produced in a paper for a poster session at LPSC 2012 [Epps and Wingo, 2012] regarding tele-presence lunar rover traverses near the lunar north pole[viii]. In our investigation we rejected the south polar region for route traverses for a major reason, the roughness of the terrain. There are very few routes in the southern polar region for distance travel without excessive terrain excursions. The reason for this is that the area of the South Pole is within the rim of the south pole Aitken Basin, the oldest major basin on the Moon which dates from the Pre-Nectarian period [Stuart-Alexander, 1978; Wilhelms et al., 1979][ix],[x]. This, along with an abundance of other large craters, results in very difficult terrain for traverses. On the other hand, the northern polar region has much less difficult terrain, especially in the direction towards the better known near side Mare region (indicated by the arrow).   If you look at figure 7a, even with the 3X exaggeration, the terrain is flat for a distance of almost 80 km across the floor of the crater.

Referring to figure 7a again, the driving routes from the 2N development site to the nearest small PSRs in the floor of Peary crater are easily discerned. Figure 8a (left) shows the terrain and 8b (right) three driving routes from site 2N:

Figure 8a: Slopes in the Area of Peary/Whipple with 200 Meter Elevation Contours Figure 8b: Examples of Driving Routes from Site 2N to the First Small Peary PSRs

Figure 8a: Slopes in the Area of Peary/Whipple with 200 Meter Elevation Contours
Figure 8b: Examples of Driving Routes from Site 2N to the First Small Peary PSRs

With the availability of the highly accurate LOLA derived digital elevation models for the polar areas it is possible to accurately plan traverses that avoid steeply sloped terrain. Additionally, the LROC 1 meter resolution images will allow traverse planning that avoids small scale hazards such as small craters and boulders.

We have developed a set of tools for route planning in the polar regions. Candidate routes can be initialized by visual inspection of co-registered datasets based on their proximity to locations of interest, avoidance of hazards, and predicted capabilities of vehicles. In Figure 8b three routes are shown. Route one is a short distance, high slope angle route to small PSRs in the northern floor of Peary. Route two is a longer, moderate slope route. Route three provides an example of a significantly longer minimal slope route to the floor of Peary. Also, it passes small PSRs outside of Peary itself. Figure 9a (left) and 9b (right) shows how the LOLA data can be processed for route planning for route two to give distances and slope angles:

Figure 9a: Elevation Vs Distance Route 2:

Figure 9a: Elevation Vs Distance Route 2:

Figure 9b: Slope Histogram Route 2

Figure 9b: Slope Histogram Route 2

The tools that we have developed, based on LOLA, LROC, Lunar Orbiter, and other data sets, form a powerful basis for route planning, resource acquisition, energy management, and communications network planning for a surface development. In our initial deployment of these tools we have found the critical differentiation between the sites 1S and 2N, with 2N decisively better from an access to resources, local communications, and driving routes, including all the way to Mare Frigoris.

For a cost effective site buildup it is imperative that at the earliest possible moment the lunar development begins to use locally derived resources. This will begin with regolith handling, sintering landing pads, and road grading. The tools that are within our grasp now can allow us to accurately plan these activities and to simulate in virtual space and through analog sites on the ground the means to most cost effectively implement the lunar development.

Local Communications

Local communications will only be cursorily addressed in our focus on site selection. However, there are some interesting things to point out. Since most of the outside activity will be conducted with robotic agents of one type or another, high bandwidth local communications as well as ranging will be important. If ranging is done right, then it becomes possible to program swarm behavior for robotic systems, thus influencing the overall robotic systems design. Instead of a few large regolith movers, many small ones can do the task, and most probably, without human intervention after the system is set up.

This idea provides a set of implied requirements for communications and ranging. Here on the Earth we have cell towers and GPS for this, but on the Moon an orbital lunar GPS may not be cost effective, at least in the near term. Thus in the evolving the lunar development site, communications towers for advanced Wi-Fi and ranging will probably be needed. The same tools that allow for traverse planning can be used for communications network development.

It is also quite clear that the very first lander that goes to the development site carry payloads for communications, and some power provisioning as well for follow on systems. This also includes a beacon for automated landing of follow on payloads as well as a local Wi-fi/radar system to assist mobile robotic systems.

Resource Acquisition

Resource acquisition and its detailed implementation, is also beyond the scope of this document. However, site selection has been strongly influenced by the presence of polar water and highlands type resources, known only by the ground truth of the Apollo missions. We know what the minimums are and thus can begin to plan now for these minimum level resources to see if the level zero requirements can be met. Project success hinges on the scale of resources and our ability to obtain and process them. To help us to this end, there have been some amazing detailed studies done in the 1970’s and 80’s by a company called Eagle Engineering that must be examined and revisited with the technologies of today. At this time, with the probable water and metallic resources we can do a good job to scope the project and see where we would be at the end of the deadline. It is our strong opinion, based upon the evidence presented here, that site 2N in the north is our best candidate, though it is imperative to obtain ground truth as early as possible.

Energy Management

Energy management is absolutely crucial to the success of the lunar development. The tools that we have developed can be used to calculate the work required to drive a certain traverse so that energy vs distance vs load calculations can be developed. This will feed back into the power budget for the lunar development to see if what we have estimated back in table 1 is adequate. Indeed, we should be able to model a considerable amount of the effort a priori in a virtual environment to choreograph the development of the site. Developing these tools and the virtual environment would be a powerful first step towards validating the entire concept. This extends to the energy management of the habitats, food growing, resource extraction, and other activities.

Long Term Growth

It is obvious that we want this project and lunar development to extend past the end of 2022 date. Indeed even before that date we should be well on our way to revenue and evolving beyond the initial plan. It is not the purpose here to delve deeply into that but we can look at the site as per its value to longer term lunar development. Figure 10 shows something interesting:

Figure 11: Minimum Traverse Distance from Site 1S to the Nearside Lunar Mare

Figure 10: Long Distance Lunar Route Planning

In just a few days of driving the three Apollo lunar rovers with two crew persons traversed a total distance of over 90 kilometers. This was over all types of terrain, with single use 4×4 vehicles. In figure 10 above there is a mapped route that has been roughly validated using detailed Lunar Orbiter and Lunar Recon Orbiter images. With the increasing density of the LRO LOLA laser altimeter data we should be able to develop terrain maps with LROC image overlays to implement the same type of traverse planning as for the polar regions. An interesting fact is that the traverse above is only a little over 300 km from the development site at Whipple crater to the nearest area on the near side of the Moon (north of Mare Frigoris) that then gives access to the entire near side with very mild terrain from then on.

Surface level access to the entire near side of the Moon is the first exponential growth upside for the lunar development. Propellant is expensive, and to jump from one area of the Moon to another costs almost as much as going to orbit and back, thus is to be avoided. A lunar surface transportation network, allowing medium to high speed transport opens the entire resource base of the near side of the Moon to development. Doing this same thing from the south is more difficult as the distance from the 1S site to the Mare is over three times farther, as shown in figure 11:

Figure 11: Minimum Traverse Distance from Site 1S to the Nearside Lunar Mare

Figure 11: Minimum Traverse Distance from Site 1S to the Nearside Lunar Mare

Now with more work we may be able to lessen this distance but it is not feasible that it will be anywhere near as close as from the northern 2N site to the Mare.

With the near side open to development, the potential for exponential growth of the lunar development is high. Deposits of titanium, thorium, meteoric metals, all become available. The Moon was once called the slag heap of the solar system but it is clear from more recent data that there are very significant metals resources on the Moon. To access, process, and utilize them will require energy. Fortunately there are concentrated thorium resources on the Moon. Figure 12 shows a map of thorium concentrations on the lunar near side:

Figure 12: Lunar Nearside Concentrations of Thorium (From Spudis and NASA)

Figure 12: Lunar Nearside Concentrations of Thorium (From Spudis and NASA)

The concentrations of thorium noted in some of the craters is very interesting. The nearest concentration in the crater Aristillus is no more than 800 km from the polar development. Thorium reactors could be developed in situ on the Moon to provide tens of megawatts of power, plenty to begin real lunar industrialization. Plentiful lunar power enables the economic development of the entire solar system.

The Gestalt

Gestalt is a word from the German that basically means a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This missive has brought together many of the parts that make up the trades toward choosing a development site on the Moon. While we think that the north polar site is the best, there are still reasons to continue with plans to put landers in both areas and to explore both polar regions as well as non polar ones for their resource potential. However, it is our considered conclusion that by beginning at the northern lunar polar site 2N on the rim of Peary and Whipple, this provides the greatest leverage at the lowest cost for a commercial lunar development.

By covering the different high level trades and capabilities of both sites, we can start to get a feel for how a lunar development can be built out. It allows us to start bringing much higher fidelity to cost estimates, we can start to design the robotics, the rovers, and other heavy mobility systems based upon known terrain, something that was not possible before the LRO mission, still ongoing today. A concentrated study based on this site should be able to bring solid costing and a baseline of capabilities for a lunar development. This is where we would advocate some near term funding to pursue this, but without the requirements that a government style contract to do it NASA’s way would bring. For the first time in history we have at leas the minimum information necessary to do this task.

Next Steps

The meeting here in silicon valley was about doing something, not just getting together, talking, maybe writing a paper and then going on to the next shiny interesting space idea. The ideas presented in this missive are derived from our earlier work, and the output from the meeting. It was this idea, to pick a site, to explore what can be done there, that became a powerful element of consensus of the group. The evidence presented here does not preclude the 1S site, indeed it confirms it as an alternate or the phase II of the development. However, the level zero requirements, forces a triage of choices and a focusing of the effort. We don’t have unlimited amounts of money and time to send multiple missions to multiple locations, and then several years down the road make a decision. There is an old saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good. The 2N site is not perfect, but as we have gone through the factors that make for a good site, it would take a lot of work to find one better. That being said, if the first landing finds the site unsuitable, then so be it.

This brings us to our next steps. One thing that is dramatically different today than in previous efforts to develop lunar architectures, we know a lot more about the Moon, from multiple missions. The data products by the Chandrayaan-1, Kayuga, SMART-1, and now the LRO mission (and the scientists who interpret the data) have revolutionized our understanding of the Moon. Beyond that, the new missions have built upon and validated earlier efforts like Clementine, Lunar Prospector, and even Lunar Orbiter and Apollo, to allow a reinterpretation of data from that era in the light of our new knowledge. However, it is now time to do more, to go beyond. Following is a series of recommendations on near term and cost effective steps to pushing lunar development forward.

Data Set Integration

None of the currently existing software packages that have lunar data (Google Moon, Act-React, or the NASA LMMP project) lunar data interfaces is up to the task of what we want to do for mission planning for lunar site development. The tools that we have developed are suitable but need integration into a better global framework that incorporates surface and orbital activities. This would be a very good project, could be open source, and incorporate citizen science and student participation.

Virtual Environments

The global framework developed for data integration could itself be integrated into a virtual environment. Virtual environment technology is on its third iteration of its attempt to become mainstream and with modern computing power, cloud computing, and high bandwidth connections we may be at a point to where the promise of the VR world can finally be brought to bear to solve real world problems.

A lunar VR environment, incorporating the data sets knowledge bases could be a powerful tool for prospecting, operational scenario development, and refinement of designs from various teams. A further integration of real world engineering software for thermal environmental testing, structures, CAD/CAM, additive manufacturing and 3D printing could be a template for building a Tony Stark (the VR environment from the first Iron Man movie) type prototyping environment that could greatly advance the design of a lunar development as well as iron out some of the problems before we get there.

Analog Sites

Current NASA analog sites like Desert RATS that has been done at NASA JSC and in the field in Arizona and the PISCES site in Hawaii are templates for this activity. Figure 12 shows some of our hardware that was at Desert RATS in 2010:

Figure 12: Solar Powered Satellite Communications and Power Infrastructure

Figure 12: Solar Powered Satellite Communications and Power Infrastructure

At Desert RATS in 2010 the NASA Ames center director, over a two hop (Ames-GEO-Earth-GEO-Desert RATS) internet connection, with a 2 second time delay, operated a NASA Ames rover from his office through our hardware shown in figure 12. This was done through a collaboration with the Challenger Center and NASA JSC at the event. Our analog of our Power Lander concept was used to provide power to the NASA habitation unit shown on the left while our communications system provided a link via satellite to a local Wi-Fi setup. We were able to remotely monitor and control our system at the site from a location in Maryland and from California.

These types of activities, when focused on the lunar development goals, can help to move development into rapid progress. Using a Maker community approach we can bring many stakeholders to the table and into the field to bring equipment to test and to validate operational procedures developed in the virtual environments. A good possible place would be at NASA Ames, at least for initial developments, and then into the mining country of California or Nevada.

Wheels on the Ground

It is absolutely imperative to get wheels on the ground, at site 2N as a first choice. Nothing substitutes for in situ data. Still to this day we are reliant on the Apollo and Luna ground truth samples to calibrate our orbital missions. We have excellent terrain and multispectral remote sensing (from orbit) data from the 2N and 1S sites and these must be validated and expanded upon, taking into account local conditions of the regolith.

There is nothing that substitutes for actual data derived from systems on site. This is why NASA has spent so much money on the Mars landers over the years and the scientific payoff has been large. We also know from the plethora of rovers on Mars that there are huge instances of metallic meteorites, a concentrated source of metals that will make building a Martian civilization much easier. It has been my thesis that these objects are on the Moon as well. We know that highlands terrain has more of this than the Mare regions from the Apollo ground truth. Knowing exactly what is there allows for a more intelligent planning for further operations. We know enough now to architect this lander, so this is a good first project and test of the intentions of the benefactors.

Mission and Project Development

Mission development guides, and is guided by, data integration, virtual environments, and analog activities. A well thought out plan that has been put through its paces in the virtual and analog environments has a far higher chance of success than one that does not take advantage of the latest developments in computer based engineering. It is from these activities that confidence can be built, problems spotted before they become expensive in flight failures, investment garnered, and public involvement fostered. When people see what is going on and when anyone can contribute in a meaningful way, the possible perception that this is just rich people’s folly can be mitigated. This must be a well funded effort, as it is impossible to get the fidelity needed to execute on a plan without some serious dedicated effort by a team who spends their available time on the project.

Final Thoughts

It is not our goal to build some kind of space utopia like in the movie Elysium. Our goal is to help develop an off planet economy and begin the development of the resources of the solar system for the benefit of all mankind, everywhere. Most of us who were at the event have the strong opinion that the Moon is the first significant step for mankind. Elon Musk believes in the colonization of Mars, a goal that we also share. However, for a robust colonization of Mars we also feel that a vibrant industrial economy on the Moon, and then the asteroids will bring together Mars and the Earth into an inner solar system wide economy. This is no longer the realm of science fiction. It is time to undertake these activities. It is also our concern that if our society only focuses on the resources of the Earth and keeping our gaze inward, we will lose sight that we are not the center of the universe and as we turn into snarling dogs, fighting for what we rightly feel is our piece of the Earthly pie, we all lose.

The pie is much larger than just the Earth and there is truly enough for everyone, we who have spent our lives in this realm have all the evidence we need to convince ourselves of this. There are also others of means who share our faith in the future and in the possibilities of technological development to bridge the gaps that too many well meaning people see no means of solving except through a regimented society. In a new book by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel called from “Zero to One” the difficulty of bringing imaginings into reality are explored. The book discusses the difference between horizontal progress, which is copying what works somewhere and the replicating that everywhere. Vertical progress which from the title of the book 0 to 1, is the jump in societal capability that technology brings. The premise is valid in that especially in space where building a self sustaining and then exponentially growing off planet civilization is the ultimate vertical progress.

The book’s premise is that our biggest successes as a global civilization in recent decades has been in horizontal progress. This is not a bad thing, and while it is necessary, it is not sufficient to bring what we need to continue in the progress of civilization. If we want to solve the problems of the twenty first century it is time to resume our vertical climb. Doing this will do more to make the world a better place and eliminate threats than any other activity we can engage in.

If done properly, and I believe it can, a lunar development conforming to the level zero requirements and goals outlined here can be achieved. This missive is not the plan, but it can be the beginning of the plan and I see absolutely nothing that precludes this from working. This could not have been said even five years ago, but recent advances in computers, robotics, 3D printing, and of course the launch vehicles of SpaceX has shifted the equation decisively into our favor.

The future is yet to be written…..

[i] Epps, A.D, Wingo, D.R.; Integrating LRO Data Products for Preliminary North Pole Rover Mission Planning, LPSC-2700, March 2012, Houston Texas

[ii] Mazarico, E. et. al; Illumination Conditions of the Lunar Polar Regions Using LOLA Topography, Icarus 211 (2011) 1066-1081

[iii] Prettyman, T.H. et. al; Elemental Composition of the Lunar Surface: Analysis of Gamma Ray Spectroscopy Data from Lunar Prospector, Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol 111, E12007, December 21, 2006

[iv] Waldron, R.D.; Production of Non-Volatile Materials on the Moon, Resources of Near Earth Space, University of Arizona Press, 1990, P262,

[v] Sanders, G.B. et. al; RESOLVE for Lunar Polar Ice/Volatile Characterization Mission, EPSC Abstracts, Vol. 6, EPSC-DPS2011-Preview, 2011 EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2001

[vi] McCord, T.B., et al., Sources and Physical Processes Responsible for OH/H2O in the Lunar Soil as Revealed by the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M3), Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 116, E00G5, 2011.

[vii] Spudis, P.D., et al.; Initial Results for the North Pole of the Moon from Mini-SAR, Chandrayaan-2 Mission, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 37, L06204, 2010

[viii] Epps, A.D., Wingo, D.R.; Integrating LRO Data Products for Preliminary North Pole Rover Mission Planning, Poster 2700, LPSC 2012 Houston Texas, March 2012

[ix] Stuart-Alexander, D. E. (1978), Geologic map of the central far side of the Moon, Scale 1:5,000,000, U.S. Geol. Surv., I-1047.

[x] Wilhelms, D. E., K. A. Howard, and H. G. Wilshire (1979), Geologic Map of the South Side of the Moon, Scale 1:5,000,000, U.S. Geol. Surv. Misc. Invest. Series, I-1162.

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Public vs Private Investment in Zero to One Technologies…

Burke Burnett wrote an amazing comment in my book review about Peter Thiel’s from Zero to One book, enough so that it merits a new post to respond.

Burke, thanks for a thoroughly cogent comment! Keyword in your comment….

..a properly functioning state….

I would argue, that for the most part, at this time, we do not have a properly functioning state. Thiel indirectly states this (lack of progress since 1971) in his book. There is an incredible book that you simply must read. Walter MacDougal’s  “The Heavens and the Earth”, it won the Pulitzer prize, exhaustively researched, and goes to the heart of our problems today by illustrating how government technocrats used the success of Apollo to transform how government works.  The catch phrase was “Well if we can put a man on the Moon certainly we can do X, Y, or Z”.  Those using that catch phrase cared not that what they were referring to could not be accomplished using the Apollo management model and several trillion dollars later we see the results.

I can pinpoint the year when it started (the decline of the properly functioning state), which was FY-1967. This was the first year of NASA’s budget cuts and the beginning of the end of the Apollo program. Did you know that by 1969 all production had ended on the Saturn V, never to restart. All of the Apollo missions were done with that first production run. I have a copy of Boeing’s fiscal year 1966 company report. Spread throughout the glossy tome was pictures of the SST under construction, the Saturn V production line, the 747 beginnings, and a plethora of other advanced programs. Today Boeing talks about maximizing production efficiencies on 40-50 year old jet designs, such as upping the production of the 737 from 42 to 57 units a year….

The U.S. aerospace industrial complex is a shattered shell of what it used to be because the investment in new technology has simply dried up. The reason given for ending the Saturn V production was that we had a deficit and could not afford it anymore. However, I have dug into the FY-67 budget document and found that there was a shift in priorities in the government, not any decrease in spending. I did an exercise where I downloaded our federal budget history since the founding of NASA and the rest of government spending. I used NASA’s high-water year of FY 1966 and normalized that to 1. I did the comparison against 14 federal agencies. In FY 1966 there was only one agency, the DoD that took a greater fraction of government funding. Today 13 out of 14 of these agencies have a larger budget than the agency.  This is shown in table 1 here: (Note: 1983-2011 hidden)

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies

Table 1: Normalized NASA Budget vs Other Federal Agencies: 1966-2014

Additionally, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup and the other large aerospace corporations (having absorbed dozens of companies in the 1990’s) are little more than federal design bureaus, doing very little development on their own dime.  A simple illustration of this is the recent award of the Commercial Crew contracts.  60 days before the award Boeing handed out 60 day pink slips to all the people working on the CST-100.  If Boeing had failed, they would have laid off all the people and that would have been it.  Sierra Nevada Corporation, after failing to get an award has simply shifted gears and is continuing on in the development of the Dream Chaser, aptly named.

I could do this across any of the federal government’s research efforts. The simple fact is that due to the problems in the inner cities and Vietnam in the 1960’s that the democrats and republicans thought might lead to a general insurrection, federal spending priorities shifted. In the job training segment alone, that had an increase that was as much as the decrease in NASA’s budget between FY-1966 and FY 1967. We have been on this trajectory ever since.

I do think, as you do,  that the federal government properly is the macro investor for the nation. Abraham Lincoln called this “internal improvements”. In the late 1700’s it was the states that led the funding of the development of the canal system across New York state and other states. The New York legislature gave Robert Fulton a 10 year monopoly for steamship travel from New York to Albany. This allowed him to obtain the venture funding (to use the modern term) to build his first ship, which was promptly burned by the luddites. It was his second ship that changed the world. The cost of a trip from New York to Albany had been 10 dollars and it took 36 hours on the stagecoach road. The steamship cut that to 10 hours for $7 dollars. Disruptive I think is the term…  As an aside when Fulton went to James Watt for steam boilers, his company’s response was that stationary applications were the only place for steam power.

This extended to the railroads and it was the states that started the railroad rush in the 1830’s-60’s. States bought stock in railroad companies that built railroads across their state. This is why Virginia, New York and other big states rapidly expanded their rail networks. Abraham Lincoln, who had defended the railroad when a steamship (what Thiel talks about when he talks about those who block progress) deliberately ran into one of the supports for a railroad span across the Mississippi (or the Ohio, I forget). This triggered a major lawsuit, which caused the railroad lots of problems, and Lincoln successfully defended them. As president he personally put his political capital at work and pushed through the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which led to the spanning of the continent. Many others followed. Go to Roosevelt and the Panama Canal. Coolidge pushed the passage of the National Highway Act of 1926, that built the first national highway system. The Airmail Act, Hoover Dam, WWII industrial expansion, Airport and air traffic development, The Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956.  All of these things were the province of government for investment, working sometimes alone and sometimes hand in hand with private enterprise to do something that private capital would not undertake.


This has always worked best when they were public/private partnerships, using the power and finance of the state, coupled with the efficiency of free enterprise. This is what Musk has done with SpaceX and Tesla. But, for every Tesla, there are ten Solyndras. These days Musk would have never been able to make this work, but with some level of private finance behind him, which he then has used to leveraged federal dollars, all of us have benefitted. However, this is the exception today rather than the rule.

The politicians are only interested in the next election (both parties) and there is not an ounce of vision between any of the snarling dogs of politics. They would much rather blow trillions a year buying votes, than invest in our future. I would maintain that in just one example, a hundred billion a year, if invested in the development of fusion and or thorium fission, would create more wealth, more jobs, and a much greater GDP increase than current spending patterns. This would improve our physical and intellectual capital and would allow the people to buy their own healthcare. We have abandoned the founding principles of the republic, which universally supported advanced technology (Franklin, Jefferson, Madison). There is far more text in the Constitution about patents than about general welfare.

If we had kept investing in nuclear power technology, space technology, and robotics, 90% of the problems that vex us today would not even be on the radar screen.  There are reasons for this slowdown that is coupled to the environmental movement as well, which at its core is dominated by luddites who simply don’t believe in the power of technology.  They are allied with the politicians, who think that they can use the coercive power of the state to create their version of a green utopia, which is neither.

I agree with you on the other paw that the vast majority of Venture Capital funds have the limitations and foci that you enumerate. This is what I was talking about when it is only a very few of the mega funds, that generates enough free cash flow to allow general partners such as Thiel, Andreeson, Jurvetson, and or Draper to risk some of their net worth in zero to one enterprises like SpaceX.

The challenge to Thiel and the others is that when we are in an era of dysfunction in the government, a portion of their wealth, if applied to the right projects (always hard to evaluate), could make the breakthroughs that the government used to, and then indeed could provide the intellectual and moral foundation to bring popular opinion over to the idea that we should go back to the government funding the future. It is a dream, but at least Thiel, and Jurvetson (I know Steve) and Thiel by reputation, at least understands it, now lets see if they are willing to risk some zeros on their bank accounts.


The above with governments is not just confined to the U.S. but is symptomatic of a general malaise of ideas across governments worldwide.

I described in the last article that Thiel, and many of us would be considered technological optimists.  Absolutely!  The political class only looks at solving problems within the context of their own familiar way of doing things.  One of Thiel’s key insights is that our biggest problems right now are technological in nature and that only technology can solve them.  I happen to strongly agree with that premise, and his contrarian view is the correct one.

We recently had an interesting event at DFJ that bears on this subject, which will be the subject of at least a couple of follow on posts.

Posted in Economic Development, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Space Book Review: Peter Thiel’s “From 0 to 1

Peter Thiel and Ben Master's From 0 to 1

Peter Thiel and Blake Master’s From 0 to 1

From 0 to 1

Its not often that a book about the general development of companies has such direct applicability to space, but Peter Thiel’s book nails it in one.  It is a remarkable insight into the mind of a forward thinking venture capitalist and should be used as a general guide for those of us seeking to build a space business.

Since space is intrinsically a technology business, Thiel’s thesis on the subject (the book has far more of a feel of a thesis than a simple exposition) is that our general societal progress has stymied because of the lack of broad technological progress in the last few decades.  His statement defining from 0 to 1 is:

The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress is technology. The rapid progress of information technology in recent decades has made Silicon Valley the capital of “technology” in general. But there is no reason why technology should be limited to computers. Properly understood, any new and better way of doing things is technology.

Thiel’s observation is that the last few decades have been marked by broad horizontal progress (globalization) from 1 to n, where the advances of China, India, and other rapidly industrializing and emerging economies are built around basically replicating the American model. This is what he calls 1 to n progress.  While building skyscrapers, superhighways, and mega-airports may be progress, it is not innovation.  While it is obvious that information technology has advanced in the last 43 years (his horizon of interest is 1971 to the present), we have not had the broad advance in technology necessary to assure the continued prosperity and advance of a global civilization.

Why 0 to 1 is Important

Thiel states:

In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.

This is absolutely correct and something that many of us, beginning with Gerard K. O’Neil in the 1970’s have discussed as the counter, to the Limits to Growth mindset that really defines the beginning of Thiel’s modern horizon.  Indeed the very premise of the Limits to Growth mindset is that technology cannot save us.  As former Vice President Gore said in his book, “Earth in the Balance”:

The environmental crisis is a case in point: many refuse to take it seriously simply because they have supreme confidence in our ability to cope with any challenge by defining it, gatherings reams of information about it, breaking it down into manageable parts, and finally solving it. But how can we possibly hope to accomplish such a task? The amount of information and exformation—about the crisis is now so overwhelming that conventional approaches to problem-solving simply won’t work.

So in a nutshell Thiel and those of us who are technological optimists are the Yin to the technological pessimists Yang of the political class.  The technological pessimists cannot fathom that technology can solve the problems that we have today but of course they (the political class) can solve them using their favorite tool, politics and the coercive power of government.  This is the defining tension of our age in the west, and thus the question is how and what do we change things in order to show that technological progress is indeed possible, desirable, is our solution to today’s problems, and to foster it?

 Mining Cordiner for Context

What Thiel writes about in postscript is exactly what the CEO and Chairman of the Board of General Electric, Ralph Cordiner spoke about (later written in a book with the chapter title Competitive Free Enterprise in Space) in prescript in 1960 and gets to the core of both the problem and the opportunity that we have today:

….But 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……

Ironically it was the state directed technology development of the space program that sewed the seeds of our lack of progress since the end of the Apollo era! There is no question that what Cordiner presented as what he called “an alarmist position” in 1960 has come to pass.  Not only has Cordiner’s alarmist position come to pass, it is now preached by some as the ultimate solution to our problems today.  Again from Albert Gore in “Earth in the Balance” (page 305) for his third strategic goal:

The third strategic goal should be a comprehensive and ubiquitous change in the economic “rules of the road” by which we measure the impact of our decisions on the environment. We must establish—by global agreement—a system of economic accounting that assigns appropriate values to the ecological consequences of both routine choices in the marketplace by individuals and companies and larger, macroeconomic choices by nations.

All guided by the government, the same people that have decided that technology cannot provide our solutions!

So, we have come to the point where regimentation is extolled as the only solution to securing our future.  You need only chart when the U.S. stopped fostering technology development and traded it for our current path, and it coincides almost exactly with the timing of Thiel’s modern age of reduced technological development.  Cordiner had an answer to this, and it brings us back to Thiel:

Therefore it is my view that national economic and military progress will be faster and more solid, and the freedoms we cherish will be preserved, if competitive private enterprise does just as much of the nation’s scientific and technical work as possible-and government provides the legal and policy framework to stimulate outstanding technical performance.

Thiel’s Thesis

Peter Thiel of course is a venture capitalist, and a leader on some of the most successful entities in Silicon Valley.  In some ways Silicon Valley is the ultimate enclave of technological optimism in the world today.  How else would you have a university (unaccredited) called Singularity University, where they preach the absolute opposite meme of the pessimists; that we are on the cusp of a convergence of technologies that will usher in a new golden age of plenty and prosperity for all mankind.  Unfortunately this is treated almost like the invisible hand of inevitability.  Thiel addresses this:

New technology has never been an automatic feature of history.!!!

This is the essence of the second part of his thesis in that we have traded the definite future of technological progress that was deeply embedded in American culture of the post war world to what he calls the indefinite future.  Basically that we have substituted definite progress toward the future with some indefinite hope in the future.  We now think that things are going to get better, we just believe it, think of it as automatic, but as Thiel writes, automatic progress has never been part of history.  As a general trend this is how he states it:

Everyone learned to treat the future as fundamentally indefinite, and to dismiss as extremist anyone with plans big enough to be measured in years instead of quarters. Globalization replaced technology as the hope for the future.

In the space business we see this every day with the infinite number of NASA trade studies leading to indefinite plans for space exploration, that somehow never quite make it to reality.

It is an embedded assumption in parallel with Cordiner by Thiel that the way forward is via private enterprise, startups, and technological development.  His favorite ones are ones with a secret, a new way of looking at things, and with plans to do more than write some code, build a bit of market an then flip it to the big boys for a cash out.  He introduces an interesting term that goes to back to the opening of his book where he talks about the his contrarian question.  He states that he asks this of people that come to him wanting investment.

His contrarian question is this:

What is it that you believe, that few others believe?

His answer is:

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more.

In this he is absolutely correct as no amount of globalization or indefinite trust in the future can solve the fundamental problems of energy, natural resources, pollution, and the desires of even the most humble in the world to have a standard of living that Americans have enjoyed.

Thankfully Thiel’s solution is not to ask for more government but to take the Cordiner approach and put his faith and financial resources in the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, and their answers to the contrarian question.  His seven Socratic questions that he asks in order to judge which companies he thinks have the greatest potential to bring the technological breakthroughs that are necessary for our future:

The seven questions.

  1. The Engineering Question

Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?

  1. The Timing Question

Is now the right time to start your particular business?

  1. The Monopoly Question

Are you starting with a big share of a small market?

  1. The People Question

Do you have the right team?

  1. The Distribution Question

Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?

  1. The Durability Question

Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?

  1. The Secret Question

Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

These are great questions that are geared toward the breakthrough companies.  To me it is hopeful as it is all geared toward developing enterprises dedicated to definite progress in technology.

Read this Book!

To me his book is much more of a reconfirmation of the research, readings, and writings that many of us have done over the past several years related to space development, with the added bonus of being able to get into the head of a leading venture capital visionary.  Thiel is part of the Paypal Mafia that also has produced Elon Musk, who all of us in the space business know is a stellar embodiment of what Thiel writes about.  What I hope is that this book will become a necessary book on the shelves of all of our bay area VC’s and that it helps to create a mindset of investing in technology.

Thiel postulates something that has already been cast as controversial in the media, which is his belief in the power of monopoly.  Early in the book he goes into the fact that only a very few companies in any VC portfolio are stellar performers, mostly companies that are defacto monopolies, something the companies themselves try to hide lest they attract the attention and ire of the government.

The monopoly companies, like Apple, Google, Amazon, and others have sufficient profits to be able to experiment and innovate on a large scale, and that companies that are hamstrung in their profits by excessive competition do not have the resources to continue innovating and thus their growth halts or they become focused on other (fake) metrics of success like increasing the stock price by large share buybacks.

I would posit that the VC business follows a similar trajectory as the companies that they invest in.   A Kauffman foundation report from 2012 goes into this in detail in that there are only a very few Venture Capital organizations that themselves have the outstanding performance that gives them the resources to innovate in their investments and take risks in 0 to 1 companies.  As one of my investors once said, it is always easier to write the second check, and it is always easier to follow what has already been done.  Thus it is the super successful ones that have the resources to experiment, if they have the mindset to do so.

Thiel’s Vision

There is no doubt that Thiel, and others like Marc Andresson of Andresson Horowitz and Steve Jurvetson of Draper Fisher Jurvetson have followed this path.  They are among the most successful in the business here in Silicon Valley.  Most of them have invested in SpaceX, Tesla, and other technology ventures.  Some of them have long investment horizons, like SpaceX and it is only those VC organizations with sufficient stature and track record that can make these investments.

As someone who has pushed radical technology development in spacecraft development for a long time, it is a very hopeful thing to see someone of Thiel’s stature write something that will be read by his peers here in Silicon Valley.  There are many 0 to 1 space companies out here that have been starved for resources during the era of 1 to n investing.  Elon Musk and SpaceX has helped lead the way for space, its time to take the advice proffered by Thiel and work to make more of them!

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