In light of feedback received from Joe Strout I’ve revised the power and thermal management system for the ELEO Space Hotel / “proto”-settlement. Specifically, I’ve right-sized the power generation and attached the solar panels/radiators to an axial truss, rather than integrating them into the rotating truss ring as before.
I learned that if we use a power/thermal management system with performance similar to the ISS power/thermal system, the ELEO hotel needs a LOT of solar panels!! Specifically over 20 square kilometers of solar panels! So the station has become a giant solar power station with a rotating ring attached.
I tripled the mass of the ELEO hotel PV solar system to 117,000 kg because, frankly, the calculated mass seemed too low (39,000 kg).
Here is the summary for the radiators
I also considered manufacturing. Warning! The handwaving picks up here so if brainstorming bothers you, I suggest you stop reading now. Constructive comments of any kind are always welcome.
The 3D printer factory can theoretically manufacture a panel 5m wide by 5m long. Let’s assume the panel (both solar and radiator) is less than half a meter deep. Breaking up our massive solar array into panels that can be manufactured in such a space means 1,792 panels need to be printed. Doing the same calculation for the radiator panels means 240 panels need to be printed. Assuming one panel printed per day (very ambitious!!!) it would take over five and a half years to print every panel. This sounds bad at first but, as the reader will see in the next post, we are assuming a station lifetime of 20 years. Full power/thermal capacity might not be needed until, say, year 10 of operation, or even later.
In this post a crude model of a space hotel/proto-ELEO space settlement is presented. Rough mass and cost estimates are included in the table at the end of the post.
This is for brain storming purposes only, not a final design. Thoughtful feedback is always welcomed.
In this first image we see an overview of the space hotel, located in 500 km ELEO. The summary statistic are in the image.
Dark blue panels = solar arrays
Sky blue boxy modules = 3d printed habs
Golden cylindrical modules = a different type of 3d printed hab
Red boxes = service modules
Purple boxes on ring = elevator ‘docks’
Purple boxes on spokes = pressurized elevators going back and forth between hub and ring
Purple central module = rotating hub
Hollow gray cylinder at top = 3D printer factory w solar panel ‘skirt’
Green boxy module = docking module with barely-visible robotic arms attached
Mass estimates are based on comparable ISS hardware. For example, to calculate the mass of the truss ring (the ring to which all modules are attached along the circumference) I researched the mass of the S0 truss (14000 kg for 13.4 meters in length resulting in 1045 kg per meter of length). Then I calculated the length (circumference) of the truss ring and multiplied that by 1045 kg to get the total mass of the truss ring. I used similar comparisons for all components, solar panels compared to ISS Solar Array Wing, gold colored modules compared to Bigelow BA330 modules, etc.
All mass estimates have an extra 10 percent margin.
Here we see a view from ‘below’ the station. The brown panels are radiators/thermal management system components.
Note the station is modular and is not finished in this image. Population capacity in the pictured configuration is estimated to be 40. Total capacity once all modules are added around the rim is estimated to be 100, as indicated in the picture.
A closer view of the hub. The robotic arm can relocate (“walk”) itself around the station, like the robot arm on the ISS today.
And here are the rough mass estimates. Note I assume gun launcher technology is available to send feedstock to orbit and that 3D printer technology has advanced to the point that all the mass of the rotating parts of the station can be built in orbit. It is more likely that advanced components (electronics, etc.) will have to be boosted up from earth. However, it is fair to assume that the most massive parts of the station (structural, pressure hull, electrical and thermal components) can be built using advanced 3d printers because these massive parts are relatively simple (unlike an integrated circuit, for example).
What follows is a simplified path to developing small space settlements in equatorial low earth orbit (ELEO): a space settlement roadmap.
Specifically, what is laid out here is the path to building a hotel/facility/large space station (call it what you will) that could, theoretically, be converted into a settlement where people permanently live. It’s not the ideal settlement, as it will still be a bit cramped, but it could work.
The reader may want to read previous posts here, here and here to obtain some helpful background information.
New scientific research, new launch technology and new commercial developments are overturning long-held beliefs about orbital space settlements. Space settlements no longer have to be massive kilometer-long structures requiring asteroid mines or moon bases to construct. They need not cost trillions of dollars and mass billions of tons. And they don’t have to be located at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points.
Instead, the aforementioned developments indicate that space settlements can be much smaller: roughly comparable in size to the International Space Station (in terms of length of structure, not volume). Such small settlements could feasibly be built using materials boosted up from Earth. And they could be fabricated and assembled using additive manufacturing and telerobotic techniques that are being developed in space right now.
Bottom line, a small orbital space settlement – literally a village in space – could conceivably be built in the next ten years, assuming certain key technologies are successfully developed. Let’s see how (in very broad brushes. Warning, lots of hand-waving here, this is for brainstorming purposes only):
Step 1: Build and launch a cubesat probe to ELEO to characterize and confirm the radiation environment.
Step 2: Establish a 3D printer business at the ISS to manufacture cubesat components. Customer: small sat mega constellation operators. Note: Made In Space is already basically doing this, except with NASA as customer, not sat operators. Ways to minimize need for astronauts to do the work: design and deploy a telerobotic rig inside the space station to operate the 3D printer remotely from earth. Feedstock can be delivered remotely as well, via the soon-to-be installed Nanoracks airlock. If this 3D printer/teleoperated rig is too big or in the way, rent space out in the essentially unused and uncrewed BEAM module (although access/logistics to/from this module may be tricky).
Step 3: Develop a larger, more capable 3D printer/telerobotic rig for use outside the station in vacuum. Again, Made In Space is already working on this. Provide more and better services for the satellite operators.
Step 4: With revenues from the ISS-based fabrication facility, raise funds to 3D print and telerobotically assemble a scale model of the key components of the eventual first settlement. Make a proof of concept for rotating ring-hubs, elevators, airlocks, etc. Maybe even fluid management parts e.g. active thermal management system. Test printing and assembling more complex parts like solar panels.
Step 5: Attempt and then successfully 3D print and assemble an inter-orbital transfer vehicle to transport vehicles from ISS to ELEO 500km. Fueled with propellant gun-launched to ISS orbit from Earth (same as how 3D printer feedstock gets to ISS). This could be a more robust and long-lived version of ULA’s ACES vehicle.
Now the hand-waving really picks up:
Step 6: Leverage existing revenue streams, raise funds to 3D print and assemble the hub and support bus of the hotel (future posts will show a graphic of the hotel/settlement being described here). Transfer this so 500 km ELEO using the dedicated inter orbital vehicle manufactured in step 5.
Step 7: Using the 3d printer factory in the hotel/settlement hub, 3D print the remainder of the structure: the minimum viable product necessary to begin crewed operations in 500 km ELEO. The hotel/settlement is modular and can be expanded as needed up to its design capacity of 70 persons.
Subsequent posts will describe the geometry of the hotel/settlement described above as well as an innovative funding mechanism to pay for steps 1 through 4 (by which time hopefully the facility is raising enough revenue to leverage in order to obtain the really big money needed for steps 5 and 6).
Space settlement precursors are activities that really ought to be perfected before space settlement is attempted.
For instance, short suborbital space tourist jaunts will create demand for longer orbital space tourist trips. Longer orbital trips will create demand for destinations in space: orbital hotels. And a space hotel is not that much different from what a space settlement will look like. A space hotel will require all the same characteristics a space settlement will need: high reliability, comfort and security for the dozens or hundreds of people aboard. So, before we have space settlements, we need to build space hotels. And before we build space hotels, we need reliable human transportation to orbit. The beginnings of which are being built now in the form of suborbital space tourism providers (e.g. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin).
Space tourism, satellite servicing and 3D printing are three examples of space settlement precursor activities.
Satellite servicing is another precursor activity, one that is likely to start in the early 2020s (link, link). Moving fluids and gases around in microgravity and perfecting long-range telerobotics will be essential to constructing and managing a space hotel and, eventually, a space settlement. And, luckily for settlement and space manufacturing, it appears a golden age of satellite construction is about to begin with numerous companies planning multi-hundred (or thousand) satellite constellations in the next five years. All many of those satellites will be designed to receive servicing, repair and replacement. Perhaps the facilities to provide some of those services can be located in orbit? The lessons learned at a satellite repair facility will be useful in constructing and maintaining space settlements.
Additive manufacturing is another space settlement precursor. Ideally a large portion of a space hotel or space settlement will be 3D printed on orbit using feedstock delivered very cheaply to orbit by gun-launcher systems or, maybe, super-huge (and super cheap) rockets like SpaceX’s ITS. This construction strategy will allow for more flexible settlement geometries: the modules won’t be constrained by the dimensions of a rocket fairing. An added bonus: 3D printing can theoretically be adjusted to accept feedstock derived from asteroidal or lunar resources in the future. So it’s an investment that can be amortized over the very long-term and used throughout cislunar space, and beyond. Luckily, at least one company, Made In Space, is already working on putting 3d printers in the vacuum of space at the ISS.
There are likely more precursors. Can you think of a few? Please make suggestions in the comments.
One of the least known and most exciting developments in the past year is the resurrection of the idea of using giant tubes or guns to launch cargo into space. This is not a new idea. Jules Verne proposed the idea in 1856 in his novel From the Earth to the Moon. It’s still highly suspect and implausible. The commonly accepted knowledge about gun launchers is that its very hard to pack enough punch into a gun to get a payload to orbit without the gun blowing up in the process. And even if you could build a big enough and stable enough gun, the acceleration would destroy the payload inside the projectile.
But This Orbital Life is aware of at least two very well-capitalized and highly-credentialed companies working on this idea: 8 Rivers Capital and Green Launch. There are unsubstantiated rumors of other companies as well, although I was unable to find any proof online.
There is increased commercial interest in developing ground-based tube-launcher technologies.
There is increased interest in this field because of the skyrocketing demand for small satellite launches to orbit. If gun launchers can be perfected (a big if), they could theoretically launch small payloads to orbit every few minutes rather than every few weeks or months. And they could arguably do it much cheaper than conventional rockets, which are finicky, complex vehicles full of expensive rockets and electronics.
But we’re not interested in launching satellites to space. The value of gun launcher technology to space settlement is that it could cheaply and regularly launch feedstock for additive manufacturing facilities in orbit. 3D printers need lots of plastic and aluminum to operate. Plastic and aluminum feedstock would not mind the high acceleration experienced during a gun launch. In fact, the projectile itself could theoretically be ground up and recycled into 3D printer feedstock. And 3D printing in space is a critical precursor to orbital space settlement.
The value of gun launcher technology is that it would be ideal for launching feedstock to additive manufacturing facilities in orbit.
In the next post I will discuss the concept of space settlement precursors.
Several developments in the past year improved the possibilities for orbital space settlement.
Al Globus, a friend of This Orbital Life, published a number of papers showing that equatorial low earth orbit (ELEO, at roughly 500 kilometers) may be an area of low radiation. Far less radiation shielding may be needed for structures located there than for structures located in higher inclination orbits (like the International Space Station) or in other areas of cislunar space (like the Lagrange points). Because less material is needed, small settlements could be built in ELEO without requiring in-situ resource utilization. No lunar bases or asteroid mining will be necessary. In other words, everything needed to build a town in space could feasibly be boosted up from Earth.
According to new research, everything required to build a settlement could feasibly be boosted up from Earth, without the need for in-situ resource utilization.
This is not the only game-changing development. Al Globus, in separate research, shows that humans can likely tolerate far higher revolutions-per-minute in a rotating* space settlement. Higher RPMs mean a settlement can be smaller, further reducing the amount of mass needed to build a viable (albeit very small) settlement.
In the next post, bleeding-edge launch developments will be discussed. And they have nothing to do with chemical rockets.
*This Orbital Life is of the opinion that space settlements must generate some level of artificial gravity in order to provide the type of lifestyle that would attract large numbers of people to live in space. Living in microgravity is uncomfortable and unhealthy.
It’s been a long time since I posted on This Orbital Life. I want to thank Liam for keeping this blog going with his fantastic Voices from L5 podcast. We pride ourselves on having a diversity of opinions. While I disagree with many of its conclusions and it’s socialist slant, I’m proud to host Voices from L5. The space community is small and occasionally becomes an echo chamber or, at best, a discussion forum defined by two poles. For example – do we go to the Moon or Mars? Do we support government or commercial space? Even if one disagrees with the opinions of its host or its guests, Voices from L5 explores entirely new aspects of space settlement beyond that which is normally heard in the space policy and development world. And for that reason alone it is extremely valuable. By entertaining a diversity of ideas our community will be stronger and do a better job persuading others of the benefits of space settlement. Thank you Liam, keep it up.
Come join us at the next International Space University (ISU) Space Cafe on March 2 at 7 pm in downtown Washington, DC. A panel of space policy experts and citizen-advocates from March Storm will speak at the Science Club to engage the audience in a discussion about how space policy is opening up the cosmos for humankind.
Discussion topics include:
What is the real purpose of human spaceflight? Should we be focused on the large-scale human settlement of space, perhaps even “millions of people living and working in space” like Jeff Bezos suggests?
How might we define Cheap Access to Space? How would a multi-billion dollar Cheap Access to Space prize, funded by the federal government, work?
What happens if the ISS is de-orbited in 2024 and we don’t have a commercial space station in LEO yet? Should we maintain a human presence in LEO as NASA looks to Mars? If you agree, what can we do to make sure that happens?
America could put humans back on the Moon by the end of the 2nd term of the next President, within NASA’s existing budget … If it used commercial COTS-like partnerships. U.S. industry could mine the Moon for propellant, and lower the cost of trips to Mars. Thoughts?”
Bring your comments, questions and concerns. We’ll see you there!
Last year March Storm successfully advocated for full funding for the development of Commercial Crew. That was a huge success and it will go a long way to making sure America can launch astronauts from its own soil in the coming years. But our work is not done. Commercial Crew will likely require additional development funding before flights begin in 2017.
We are so close to having not one but two new spacecraft to send human beings into orbit. Commercial Crew is essential to our national security and achieving our goals in space, and it may also lead to more space tourism and other commercial activities in low earth orbit. Join us and help push this program over the finish line!
Glenn Clovis is a genius and a visionary. Just look at that awesome image of twinned Island Three’s above! Check out more of the outstanding space-themed images on his website here.
Update: I recently learned Glenn converted his old static website (with lots of cool space settlement stuff) into a more frequently updated blog. So we can expect to see lots more from this awesome space artist!
March Storm is a legislative advocacy event occurring in Washington DC from March 13 to 17 this year. Join dozens of your fellow citizens as we educate Congress about the citizen’s space agenda. Learn more here.
From March 13 to March 17 dozens of private U.S. citizens will again travel to Washington, D.C. — on their own time and their own dime — to advocate for a Citizens’ Space Agenda.
A key item on this year’s Citizens’ Space Agenda is to pass legislation ensuring there is no gap in the permanent human presence in space. The International Space Station will be decommissioned in 2024 and there is currently no plan for a replacement. Congress should take steps to encourage private space stations in low earth orbit before 2024, with NASA as an anchor customer.
This ‘gapless transition’ is a key part of the larger Commercial Space Industrialization Act (CSIA). CSIA will also clarify space property rights and require the U.S. government to establish a market for rocket fuel in space, especially for propellant manufactured from asteroidal and lunar resources. In short, this proposed bill will lay the groundwork for a commercial economy in space.
Excited? We need your help! Register now for MarchStorm 2016 at www.marchstorm.com to join the movement.
I’m writing today to ask you to fill out a survey. It’s short, a one page intro then eight required and six optional questions. The survey usually takes less than ten minutes to complete. You will not be asked for contact information and there are no ads. Your answers will be used to help inform the design of a new generation of space settlements.
Please forward this to your friends!
and The ELEO Group
I’m on an email list with a bunch of geniuses who are working on a way to build space settlements. For real. The list was organized by none other than Al Globus, the ‘keeper of the flame’ of space settlement at NASA.
An aside: Al recently wrote a ground-breaking paper on equatorial low earth orbit (ELEO) space settlement that anyone who is interested in space policy really needs to read. He essentially discovered a previously unknown low-radiation belt in a 500km equatorial orbit that is ideal for human space operations.
Anyway, as you might imagine, building a space settlement is really hard. Building the ISS, a relatively straightforward space station took twelve years, $75 billion and cost 7 people their lives. Not good.
Even the smallest space settlement will be much bigger, much more complex and probably way more expensive than the ISS. It should go without saying that before humanity attempts to build a permanent community in space, more experience is needed.
Therefore, the path to space settlement begins with building more space stations. Perhaps they will look like the ISS but ideally there will be a variety of architectures so we can learn what works best. After the stations come space hotels. Bigger, more capable, lots of visitors and lots of crew. Over time space hotels will get so big that they will eventually morph into permanent settlements.
The Path to Space Settlement
Space Stations -> Space Hotels -> Space Settlements
Ok I realize I may have been a bit harsh yesterday when I wrote that government developed rocketships are insane. And when I called the Space Shuttle a failed experiment in reusability. While that last phrase is technically true, it does not reflect the full, positive impact of the Space Shuttle program. Without it we wouldn’t have been able to build the ISS, we couldn’t have launched (and fixed!) the Hubble Space Telescope, and we couldn’t have done a million other amazing things in space. So, to show my appreciation for the shuttle, here is an awesome video of a bunch of launches.
I particularly like this video for its depiction of the crowds watching the launches. Check out the Mission Control guy pumping his fist at 41 seconds, the crowd going nuts around 5:15, the lady wiping away her tear at 5:45 and the crowd cheering at the end near 7:25. Anyone who has ever seen a rocket launch knows how emotional and exciting it is. Hope you enjoy!
Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results. In the past thirty years the United States government has made three attempts to develop a special kind of rocket called a reusable launch vehicle. RLVs are the holy grail of aerospace engineers: they are a type of rocketship that can be reused many times greatly reducing the cost to access space. Think airplane to space rather than big shiny tube full of explosives to space.
Three times in recent memory the U.S. has tried to build RLVs. Three times it has failed:
Space Shuttle – Intended to be reusable and reduce the cost of access to space. Turns out it was just as expensive as previous rockets, and probably more dangerous. Total program cost: $209 Billion. Tragically, 14 astronauts lost their lives as a result of this failed experiment in reusability.
National Aerospace Plane – “By the time of its cancellation [in 1993], the government had admitted to making a $1.7 billion investment in the National Aerospace Plane, but parts of the R&D was highly secret and the official costs were probably somewhat higher.”
X-33/VentureStar – “By early 2001, the program was officially cancelled – five years and $1.5 billion down the line. Official reasons for the cancellation was a disagreement over extra funding from both industry partners, NASA and Lockheed Martin. However, the recommendation of the composite tank to keep costs down to prospective commercial interest was the main reason given to workers.”
And now the Department of Defense is messing around with what I like to call “Shuttle lite” in the form of the X-37.
Reusability is a worthy goal. We as a country and as a species should pursue reusable launch vehicles in order to more quickly and cheaply open up the universe for exploration and settlement.
We just need to use a different strategy. Going the government contracting route when it has already failed three times is, like Einstein said, pretty much insane.
According to our sources, Congress is thinking about international cooperation in space. Specifically, some members of Congress are considering who the U.S. should ask to join us if we go to the Moon, Mars and the asteroids. Should it be liberal, capitalist, western democracies like Japan, Canada and Europe? Or should it also include not-so-progressive nations like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea?
This is ultimately a question of values versus cooperation. Do we want western values exclusively represented in outer space? Or do we want to foster cooperation between conflicting nations as humanity heads out to the stars? Do we want to build the ‘shining city on a hill‘ referred to by Kennedy and Reagan or do we want to replicate the United Nations in orbit?
The argument for a U.N. in space is pretty obvious. Cooperation is like motherhood and apple pie, who doesn’t like it?
However, some have argued that the ‘shining city’ option is better. By going into orbit with our democratic allies, we will be saying to the world that the future of the human race is one of rights, rule of law and progressive capitalism. And when the Russias of the world choose to become free, democratic countries they can join the rest of us in outer space.
What do you think? Why not let us know in the comments section below?
I recently learned that the International Space Station does not have a washing machine. Astronauts are expected to wear dirty clothes (even underwear!) for three or four days until they put on clean set from a very limited wardrobe. A supply of clean clothes is provided every few months on resupply rockets. If the resupply rocket is delayed, astronauts have to make do and turn their jockeys inside out, I guess. Once they do finally get clean clothes, the dirty laundry is packed into the empty resupply capsule which is then jettisoned and burned up in the atmosphere.
Why doesn’t NASA just install a washing machine in the space station? They already have a super-duper space toilet and a golden robot. Surely a washing machine wouldn’t be too hard to whip up?
The best I can tell is that, they could it but it’s actually easier with the current system. Washing machines use lots of water and water is actually quite expensive to deliver to the space station. I guess NASA has decided it’s easier to ship up clean clothes rather than hundreds of pounds of water. Also, detergents are chemical irritants. If some got out in the closed environment of the space station it could wreak havoc on the delicate experiments and equipment, not to mention the astronauts themselves!
But what about when we go to Mars or the Moon and resupply is not an option? NASA has studied a waterless air-jet microwave washing machine as well as super odor-resistant materials. Whether or not these solutions will work for a five-year long Mars trip remains to be seen. Sounds like yet another reason why we need long-term space settlement to test all this stuff out before we go to Mars…
Last month Congress passed a law stating that commercial companies can own moon rocks and asteroid bits if they go into space and mine it themselves. This ticked a lot of people off because the U.S. is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty. The Outer Space Treaty says (kinda, sorta, if you squint at it really hard) that commercial companies cannot in fact own moon rocks and asteroid bits. Because of this, a lot of excitable people on Twitter kind of went nuts saying that the U.S. wants to ignore the Outer Space Treaty and instead wants to consume all the resources of the entire universe all for itself.
Everyone take it easy.
What the Outer Space Treaty actually says is that no national government may claim the Moon. By enabling commercial companies to keep (relatively tiny) portions of the Moon for commercial purposes, the U.S. Congress is not claiming U.S. sovereignty over any celestial body. In fact, if those people on twitter actually read the law they will see that it says, right there in section 403 that, “It is the sense of the Congress that by the enactment of this Act, the United States does not thereby assert sovereignty … or the ownership of, any celestial body.” Translation: you can mine it, you can keep what you mine, but the Moon and the asteroids are not notnot U.S.-owned territory.
It’s sort of like commercial fishing. You can take a ship out to international waters and extract fish from the ocean. You will own the fish, but you can’t claim the international waters.
So what will this law do? Peter Diamandis, one of the godfathers of commercial space, said it best:
“A hundred years from now, humanity will look at this period in time as the point in which we were able to establish a permanent foothold in space. In history, there has never been a more rapid rate progress than right now.”
Agreed. Well done Congress. Haters gonna hate, don’t worry about it. You got this one right.
No for real. Balloons with regular breathing air will float in Venus’s heavy atmosphere. It’s closer than Mars, there is less radiation and the gravity is about the same as on Earth. Check out the video:
Curious to learn more about colonizing Venus? Check out our podcast on the topic:
Are you serious about this relationship we have, NASA? We’ve been messing around for years and it’s been fun but I’m not a young kid anymore. I’m getting impatient. I’ve invested more than a decade in you and what has it gotten me? Let’s get real: are we going to Mars or not, NASA?
All joking aside, a few items make me wonder how serious NASA really is about getting humans to Mars. Consider:
1. We don’t have a budget. NASA has yet to tell us how much it is going to cost to send humans to Mars. We literally have no official estimate of the price tag, could it be well over $100 billion? It’s hard to take the organization’s commitment seriously if they won’t say how much they need from Congress to do it.
2. We don’t have a schedule. NASA and the President give different deadlines for completing the mission. In a major space policy speech in 2010 President Obama said we would land on Mars “in the mid 2030s.” NASA’s website concurs, saying we will land “in the 2030s” i.e. by 2039. But in November 2015, the NASA administrator randomly moved the landing date up to 2030. In light of this confusion one can’t help but think NASA has a sincere hope of going to Mars but no actual plan.
3. Mars is killing me. Or it would, if I was on the way there. Really, between the zero-gravity and the radiation, an astronaut might arrived crippled or brain-damaged before even setting foot on the planet. NASA’s plan to figure this out? Send one guy to live in space for a year. A sample size of one is insufficient to fully understand these risks and mitigate against them.
Listen NASA, I love you, I really do. I want to make this work. Please get your act together and let’s go to Mars already, ok?
Pizza. Everyone loves it. But have you ever considered what goes into a pizza? Flour, tomatoes, cheese, olive oil, spices – and that’s before we even talk about the toppings.
Now consider – what would it take to make pizza in a space settlement, millions of miles away from Earth? Will future space settlers be able to grow and produce all the ingredients needed to bake a delicious pizza? Let’s figure it out!
The foundation of any good pizza is dough. Luckily, the best dough is pretty simple: wheat flour, water, salt and yeast. Ideally a little olive oil, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s leave that out. Water is a necessity. Future space settlements can probably figure out how to grow wheat to make flour. Salt will probably have shipped up from Earth, but we don’t need too much.
Yeast is interesting. No, really. Ok, gross-out warning: yeast is a fungus found naturally in the Earth’s atmosphere. Chances are it will not be found naturally in the atmosphere of a space settlement (at least not at first). So, like salt, yeast will probably have to be transported up from Earth. But again, like salt, we don’t need too much. And once it’s released into the atmosphere of the space settlement it might propagate allowing the ‘natural’ cultivation of yeast in the future.
Once we have some dough, we’re gonna need sauce. Like a good dough, a good sauce is simple: crushed tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, some dried oregano and some dried basil. All of those items can easily be grown in a basic space settlement farm. Olive trees are tricky to cultivate so, at least in the early years of space settlement, olive oil will probably be imported.
On to the cheese. Cheese is surprisingly complex to make, especially in a space settlement. First off, we’re using goat’s milk. Cows are too big and too inefficient. It will be centuries before a space settlement large enough to accommodate cows is built. In addition to goat’s milk we need rennet (an enzyme derived from a young milk-fed cow, goat or lamb), citric acid (derived from lemons) and iodine-free salt. Like I said, complicated! And that’s before we even get started. Making mozzarella is more of an art than a science and, like, cultivating yeast, it takes a lot of practice and trial and error.
In conclusion, early space settlers can grow or produce most of the components of a basic pizza. But certain ingredients, like yeast, salt and cheese-making bits, will need to be imported from Earth.
Taking a step back, consider for a moment that humans have lived in space for 15 years. That is, there has been a continuous human presence on the International Space Station since November 2, 2000. That’s a milestone achievement and one that is set to expand as the Chinese and commercial providers ramp up development of their own stations.
The United States has a burgeoning commercial launch vehicle development sector. Specifically, I count eleven companies seriously (with real money) developing new launch vehicles. Seven of those companies are doing so without any significant government assistance. There are probably more I’m forgetting. Eleven well-funded companies bending metal and building rockets to go into space is a market. What will these companies accomplish in future years?
Cubesats are revolutionizing the satellite market and have the potential to revolutionize the world as well. You can build a satellite and launch it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, something that, not too long ago, used to cost ten of millions of dollars. Looking forward, twoextremely well-funded companies are looking into building global wifi networks using small satellites.
This is the question posed at the beginning of an intriguing (dare I say groundbreaking?) study recently published by NexGen Space.
The study was funded by NASA, reviewed by an all-star cast of actual rocket scientists and, to top it all off, endorsed by Buzz Aldrin himself.
Bottom line: we can return to the Moon in seven years (from when we say go!) and do it within NASA’s current human spaceflight budget ($3B per year). A decade or so after that, we can have a fully functioning manned Lunar outpost delivering rocket fuel to orbit, greatly facilitating Mars exploration.
We can return to the Moon with the existing NASA budget and in less than seven years.
Don’t believe it? Read the report yourself, right here:
So, in case you live under a rock you know that The Martian movie came out a few weeks ago. Obviously, the permanent staff here at This Orbital Life loved it. Since we’re clearly incapable of giving an unbiased review of the flick, we thought it best to bring in a guest author.
TOL’s good friend Mike took his son Andy to see the movie and he graciously agreed to write a review for us. So, with no further adieu, here is our guest author reviewing The Martian:
Hi, my name is Andy. I am 10 years old. I think the movie “The Martian” was pretty good. It was very educational, scientific, and lots more. Here are some reasons why…
It was educational. You learned a lot about space and gravity. You also learned how to create water. That is how Mark grew potatoes to survive. Mark Watney is the main character.
This is what the movie is about. It is about an astronaut that gets stranded on Mars. He has to figure out how to grow food, and ration it to survive. He also has to figure out how to communicate with NASA.
It was scientific. Mark has to use the poop from the waste bin to fertilize the soil he created to grow the potatoes that he found in the food supply bin in the base. That’s how he survived. He also had to create water with hydrogen and oxygen to grow the potatoes.
It was very exciting, but I don’t want to give away the whole movie. These are only some of the reasons why I liked “The Martian”. What do you think it would take to travel to Mars for real?
Thanks for the review Andy! We hope you can come back and review Star Wars when it comes out this Christmas.
Back in July I wrote an op-ed for Space News encouraging everyone to support full funding for Commercial Crew. Congress still hasn’t decided how it wants to fund the program and, in fact, the entire government. Therefore, I think now is a good time to republish my op-ed in its entirety here at This Orbital Life:
Whenever a group of people put tons of high explosives into a fragile metal tube and set that tube on fire, there are bound to be mishaps. No matter how advanced the equipment or how much funding is provided by Congress, a rocket launch is still a controlled explosion. This is what people are saying when they quip, “Space is hard.” Space is hard because until we perfect antigravity or the space elevator, we will be forced to send our people and our stuff into space on columns of smoke and fire.
However, there are choices we can take to minimize risk and maximize benefits. SpaceX and Boeing are developing two new spacecraft for America’s astronauts as part of NASA’s commercial crew program. Congress is on the verge of underfunding this unique public-private partnership by $300 million, consigning the program to more delays. Even worse, the Falcon 9 explosion on June 28, despite being the first SpaceX failure after 18 successful launches, is being used by some to argue that commercial crew is not an appropriate method for supporting government space operations.
This could not be further from the truth. Here is why:
Commercial crew will provide redundancy. The Falcon 9 explosion illustrates why it is essential for the United States to have multiple launch providers. Maintaining uninterruptible access to orbit is critical to supporting both civilian and national security assets in space. If one launcher fails and is down for a few months, there needs to be another one to fill the void. Commercial crew is doing just that by midwifing the development of two competitive, commercially available space launch providers.
It is the most reliable alternative. Astronauts currently access low Earth orbit and the International Space Station using Russian rockets. The Russian Proton has failed seven times in the past five years and the Soyuz has failed twice in the past two years. More troubling than the crumbling state of their aerospace industry are recent pronouncements from Russian government officials to end that country’s involvement in the International Space Station. Without Russian cooperation, America is unable to access the space station. A $100 billion American investment would be stranded, useless, in outer space. While we hope that our Russian colleagues will not take such a drastic step, it shows that they are becoming increasingly skeptical and unreliable partners in the ISS framework. America quickly needs another way to get its astronauts to the space station, and commercial crew is the only alternative currently under development.
It’s cost-effective. Commercial crew uses a new type of a contracting method that shifts much of the development risk to the private sector. That, and having two firms competing for limited funds, lowers costs. Specifically, the American taxpayer will spend less than $5.6 billion to get two new launch vehicles under the commercial crew program. Compare that with conventional rocket programs like the new Space Launch System and the old space shuttle program. SLS will cost about $18 billion to develop and the space shuttle cost $43 billion (in 2011 dollars) to develop. Commercial crew represents a new way of doing business at NASA, one the taxpayer and Congress should embrace.
It’s developing cutting-edge technology. Both Boeing and SpaceX will use late-model American-made rockets for their commercial crew vehicles. SpaceX in particular is very aggressive in developing cutting-edge launcher technology at multiple facilities throughout the United States. In fact, SpaceX hopes to use machinery developed in the commercial crew program to eventually send spacecraft to Mars. Commercial crew is leading to the development of a new rocket industry in the United States and, more importantly, appears to be inspiring young people to pursue careers in aerospace-related fields. Rather than subsidize the Russian ballistic missile industry or waste taxpayer money on pork-barrel space projects, we should embrace commercial crew because it is helping to develop the technology and the workforce needed to ensure American dominance on the high frontier.Yes, space is hard. No matter what policy we pursue, there are bound to be failures when we launch rockets into space. However, within that reality, we can choose a path that makes the best and highest use of our shared resources.
Commercial crew is still the best hope the United States has for ensuring uninterruptible and reliable access to low Earth orbit. It will save the American taxpayer money and will continue to expand homegrown innovation and technology development.
Commercial crew, despite recent setbacks and a lack of congressional funding, deserves our continued and full-fledged support.
In the past few years ideas have bubbled up for spending more money on NASA. For example, prominent scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson proposed we double NASA’s budget. Separately, the slick, well-funded Penny4NASA group says NASA should get 1% of the federal budget.
Obviously, it is counter-intuitive to expect an organization like NASA to get more funding these days. Asking for more funding for anything, but especially something like space exploration, is not likely to garner much support from Congress or the general public. But, hey, it’s Friday before a three-day weekend. Let’s have a little fun! Below is a summary of recent proposals to boost NASA’s budget (as well as a few more thrown in by the Budgeting Department at This Orbital Life):
I realize that chart is a little small so it’s summarized here:
– Our baseline is NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget of $17.46 billion.
Imagine this: you’re at the craft brewery enjoying a PBR. Suddenly, you hear the loudmouth hipster at the table next to yours whining about how the US wastes so much money on space. He thinks all of NASA’s funding goes to building little robots for Mars. You roll your eyes and ignore him. Or you could turn around smack the stupid glasses off his pasty face and explain to him the:
TOP THREE REASONS WE NEED TO SPEND MONEY ON SPACE
It saves time. Do you use Uber? Or Google Maps? Or any modern smartphone? Sure you do! All of these amazing time-saving apps rely on GPS satellites. The U.S. government launched dozens of satellites into space so you can find the closest Starbucks or get an Uber lickety-split. Oh, and it maintains this fantastically expensive, incredibly precise miracle of modern engineering for free. That is, the GPS signals are free for anyone to use. Thank you American taxpayer!
It saves lives. South Carolina recently got walloped by floods. Due to weather forecasting, provided (for free!) by the U.S. government, thousands of people evacuated the area. Unfortunately not everyone was saved but without the imagery provided by weather satellites in geosynchronous orbit, surely many more would have perished. So, spending money on space saves lives.
It could save civilization. The dinosaurs were probably killed off when an asteroid hit the Earth. That’s not going to happen to us, because we have a space program. One of the most important programs NASA pursues is detecting asteroids that threaten to hit the Earth. They’ve also got plans to redirect a hazardous asteroid, should one be discovered. If the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d probably still be around today. But they didn’t. Sucks for them. Good for us.
So, let’s review. We need to spend money on space for the following reasons: to save time with GPS, to save lives with weather satellites and to save civilization by detecting asteroids.
There will be a big announcement today at 1pm at the National Press Club in Washington DC. A NASA-funded study recently laid out a pathway to return to the moon in under ten years for about $5 billion leveraging commercial partnerships (like NASA’s COTS program). I will post more as I learn more.
Unless you live under a rock, you know that the New Horizons probe succesfully ‘explored’ Pluto yesterday. After traveling 3 billion miles over 9 years, it flew by Pluto at fantastic speeds and took the first close-up photos of the dwarf planet. Needless to say, this is a remarkable technical and scientific achievement for NASA and something the human race can take lots of pride in.
On a side note, New Horizons is an outstanding example of how America continues to lead on the international stage. We, the American taxpayer, paid for this mission that will have benefits for all of humanity. It is science for science’s sake: pure exploration for the love of knowledge.
But what now? What comes after the triumph of the Pluto fly-by? The show is not over as New Horizons will continue to probe the furthest reaches of the Solar System by heading into the Kuiper Belt. According to NASA, “The Kuiper Belt is a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system. [Kuiper Belt Objects] belong to a unique class of solar system objects that has never been visited by spacecraft and which contain clues to the origin of our solar system.”
In other words, New Horizons is not stopping at Pluto; it is going even further into the black. It is heading into the rural hinterlands of the Solar System far from the busy cosmic neighborhood around Earth. It is in this wilderness that New Horizons will explore pristinely preserved mini-planets that are thought to be the building blocks of planets like Pluto and possibly even Earth. In short, the search for the origins of the Solar System and life itself will continue. The quest goes on; what else might New Horizons discover?
The best justification to settle space I have seen so far, care of the legendary Al Globus:
“There are two major reasons to settle space: survival and growth. Survival because someday, someway things are going to go very badly on this planet. Major asteroid hit, super volcanoes, sun going red giant, who knows. When that time comes, and we don’t know when it will be, we will have either gotten off the planet or be exterminated. The room for growth in space is enormous. This solar system alone can probably support a quadrillion people or more using asteroidal and solar energy resources alone. The exact number depends on your assumptions, but it is huge. Of course, once we turn our free-space settlements into generation ships, perhaps in a million years, we will have access to all the stars in the galaxy.
Right now, as far as we really know, life is limited to a thin film around the third rock from the sun. We have the ability to change that, to fill the solar system and eventually the galaxy with life. I can think of no more noble nor useful cause. I can think of no greater dereliction of duty to fail due to lack of effort.”
And to all Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere, Happy Independence Day!
“I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary festival… It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.” – John Adams, July 3, 1776, on the importance of celebrating Independence Day
You may not know it but we are living through a renaissance of commercial activity in space. Dozens of satellites are being launched in the form of smallsats.Experts predict smallsat activity will jump by two-thirds over the next five years, as compared to the last five years. One glancing at the front page of Space News recently could be forgiven for thinking the only item the website covers is satellites: most headlines mentioned “smallsats” in one way or another.
But what exactly is a smallsat? How is it different from a regular satellite?
According to NASA, small satellites have a ‘dry mass’ – that is, what their mass is without fuel – of less than 180 kilograms. However, smallsats can be much, much smaller than that. Specifically, “On the lower mass end, there are [satellites] with a mere size of a large postage stamp and with a mass well below 1 kg. Spacecraft are generally grouped according to their mass, where small spacecraft include minisatellites with a mass of 100-500 kg, microsatellites with a mass of 10-100 kg, nanosatellites with a mass of 1-10 kg, and picosatellites with a mass below 1 kg.” For comparison, a conventional communications satellite can easily mass 6,000 kilograms and be the size of a school bus.
According to the same report, “CubeSats are a type of small spacecraft that weigh only a few kilograms and are built using a standard form factor relying on a 10 cm3 cube. CubeSats can be composed of a single cube (nicknamed a ‘1U’ unit) or several cubes combined forming, for instance, 3U or 6U units.” CubeSats are a particularly popular form of smallsat because they are a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ solution for the smallsat developer.
Ok so, basically, smallsats are simple, cheap satellites. Why does this matter?
Smallsats can do a lot of the same things expensive, bus-sized satellites can do but they can do them cheaply and, in some cases, more effectively. Because smallsats are so cheap they can be launched in constellations. In this way many smallsats can take the place of one big satellite. This has huge implications for global communications, imaging and weather forecasting.
Two very well-funded companies (Google and OneWeb) are moving forward with plans to provide high-speed internet access anywhere in the world using constellations of small satellites. Consider the implications of high-speed wifi anywhere you can see the sky. You could replace or augment your cellphone data plan with a more capable satellite wifi plan. You could stream movies or video chat anywhere: in the woods, on an airplane, or far out at sea. Lost hikers and missing airliners will become a thing of the past. The possibilities for the developing world are even more exciting: farmers and workers can get crop and job information more easily. Dictators and tyrants will have a harder time terrorizing their populations when news and information are literally streaming through the air. The implications of cheap, high-bandwidth wifi enabled by constellations of small satellites are enormous.
I see you!
Fleets of small satellites will be able to monitor the entire globe using advanced video cameras. One will literally be able to see the entire globe in video in real-time. The type of satellite imagery that is currently available only to militaries and intelligence agencies will become available to everyone. And the quality and coverage of that imagery will be much, much better. Air traffic around busy airports or even vehicular traffic on individual city streets will be observed and directed. Entire fields of crops will be assessed from orbit. Natural disasters or other emergencies will be managed using orbital imaging.
Fire the weatherman
With better imaging and a pervasive presence over the entire globe, weather forecasting will become more accurate. This will have obvious benefits for the farmer, the sports fan, the commuter and pretty much everyone who spends any time outdoors at all.
But wait, there’s more!
These benefits are all great but the smallsat revolution will have an even greater impact. For decades space enthusiasts have been waiting for ‘the killer app’ that will open up space. A product or service that will catalyze the creation of the spacefaring civilization many have been waiting for since the Apollo days. Smallsats might be that killer app – they might create an industry that lays the groundwork for moon colonies, trips to Mars, giant space stations and all the trappings of a space cadet fantasy land.
How so? The simple answer is launch costs. Smallsats will provide payloads for launch vehicles. Lots of them. If lots of rockets are launching stuff into space all the time, the technology will mature faster and the price to access space will drop. This could be the start of a virtuous cycle. The lower launch costs become, the more other space businesses become feasible. And the more space businesses there are, the more rockets will launch, lowering launch costs even further. Eventually, hopefully, launches will be so cheap, safe and frequent that the really big exciting space projects become feasible.
So now you know why small satellites are such a big deal. Smallsats are here, and they’re about to become much more numerous. They will change your life and, just maybe, they might be your ticket to space one day.
At one point or another every space enthusiast asks the question: when can I get my trip to the Moon? When will I get to walk on Mars and mine asteroids? When will I be able to visit a gigantic space settlement and check in to my zero-gravity hotel room? In short, when is all this space stuff going to become real?
Loyal readers know that This Orbital Life likes to take a comprehensive view of the space development arena. We cover technology and engineering but also financial, political and societal developments related to space. We’re not just a news site; we’re also a discussion and analysis site. As such, This Orbital Life is well-placed to take a dispassionate, holistic view of the current space development field and make some long-term predictions.
Some notes before we dig in: this list is a sampling and does not include every activity or firm in the commercial space universe. It is biased to those companies and organizations that This Orbital Life thinks has the best chance of turning their plans into reality. So you will not see companies like Golden Spike or Deep Space Industries in this article. This Orbital Life wishes them all the best but their absence is a sober acceptance of the fact that these firms are poorly financed and unlikely to achieve their goals. You will also not see a mention of exotic vaporware like single stage to orbit, laser-propelled launch vehicles, space elevators, or other things that are unlikely to come to fruition in the next fifteen years. Finally, you’ll notice that many of these items (like the SLS Exploration Mission 1) appear on the timeline later than they’re currently scheduled to occur. This is not a mistake; it is our prediction as to when these things will actually happen.
With that disclaimer, let’s get to the predictions. Here they are, starting a few years in the future:
Commercial Crew first flights. Boeing and SpaceX both successfully debut the CST-100 and crewed Dragon. Commercial Crew is so critical because it is the catalyst that will kick off a new human presence in outer space. Once crew transportation is commercially available, commercial space stations become viable, which will really jumpstart the human presence in outer space.
Planetary Resources identifies mining targets. Planetary Resources, using their custom-made remote sensing orbital telescopes, compiles a list of asteroids that are appropriate for further analysis and, potentially, mining. Asteroid mining will provide the raw materials to fuel human expansion into outer space.
Virgin Galactic begins regularly scheduled suborbital tourist flights. Space tourism is the killer app that will expose more and more people to the wonders of space flight and increase the general public’s comfort with the idea of living and working in space.
SLS/Orion Exploration Mission 1. NASA successfully launches an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon using an SLS Block 1 configuration. A year late but better late than never.
A private company tests moon mining. A new company, probably a cooperative venture between Moon Xpress and several other Google Lunar Xprize contestants, lands a small rover on the moon and tests extraction and production of water on the lunar surface. A kilogram or two of water is successfully produced. NASA supports the effort via unfunded Space Act Agreements and relatively inexpensive data purchases. Like asteroid mining above, moon mining will provide the raw material (fuel, water, radiation shielding, etc) to catalyze space development and exploration.
The first commercial space station is established. Lofted into orbit by a Falcon Heavy, Bigelow Aerospace opens a single, self-sufficient BA-330 module for business. The first tenants are smaller national space programs, notably Brazil and the United Arab Emirates. The space station is supplied by Commercial Crew launchers Boeing and SpaceX.
Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is launched. Congress and the space-industrial complex push NASA to pursue this mission in order to justify launches for the SLS/Orion vehicle. ARM will reach its destination in 2022 and astronauts will explore the retrieved asteroid in 2026.
Additional private firms begin offering suborbital tourist flights. Spurred by the success of Virgin Galactic, several other firms begin offering tourist flights to suborbital space, as well as other services e.g. atmospheric science and ballistic package delivery. Prices to ‘suborbit’ begin falling.
ARM is a success! Those well-funded geniuses at NASA successfully pluck a boulder from an asteroid. The craft starts the slow journey back to lunar orbit where a team of astronauts will explore the boulder in 2026.
SLS/Orion Exploration Mission 2. EM-2 was originally scheduled for 2026 and was intended to rendezvous with the ARM-captured asteroid. But that would have meant an eight year gap between SLS launches. Therefore, under pressure from the President and the space-industrial complex, Congress hastily agrees to fund this additional mission in order to maintain some semblance of launch cadence for the SLS program. The mission is a stunt, probably sending astronauts around the Moon or some other useless gesture. The ARM mission will become EM-3.
Satellite servicing becomes viable. Commercial satellite providers begin launching ‘birds’ that can be refueled and upgraded by robotic craft controlled by satellite servicing companies. The extra fuel and supplies are launched from Earth.
Planetary Resources samples an asteroid. It is the first private company to land on an asteroid. Furthermore, it proves that there are commercially viable amounts of raw materials present on the asteroid, making this particular asteroid an appropriate target for space mining. Planetary Resources attempts to ‘claim’ the asteroid in certain jurisdictions.
The $1000 per-pound-to-orbit barrier is broken. For decades the cost of launching items into space has been informally gauged by the cost to send one pound into orbit. This year, the price drops below $1000, due to the increasing use of reusable first stages and widespread availability of frequent space launches. This is a psychologically important barrier as many experts believe it is the price at which large-scale space commercialization becomes feasible.
Something terrible happens. There is a disaster related to space development. Perhaps it is a launch failure or an explosive decompression on a space station. Whatever it is, it’s bad: people die, businesses fail and the government investigates. Ultimately, however, space development continues to move forward.
Press begins referring to the ‘space station industry’. At any one time there are more than a dozen companies offering to rent space on three separate commercially-run space stations in low earth orbit. In addition to the six astronauts at the government-run International Space Station, there are an additional twenty-four to thirty astronauts on the private stations.
SLS/Orion Exploration Mission 3. Astronauts travel to and successfully explore the ARM-captured asteroid in lunar orbit. They return to Earth safely. For a few months in 2026, NASA regains its glory days. Millions of people follow the mission and enthusiasm for human space exploration reaches levels unseen since the Shuttle program.
The International Mars Program is established. Leveraging the excitement generated by last year’s asteroid mission, the U.S. government establishes a coalition of nations to explore Mars. It is modelled on the International Space Station partnership. It includes all the original ISS partners as well as China, India, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.
NASA rents space on a commercial space station. Rather than build a replacement to the ISS, NASA signs a contract to rent several hundred cubic meters on a new, separate commercial space station as part of the ‘Commercial Station’ program.
ISS is deorbited. After thirty years on orbit, the International Space Station program comes to an end.
A private company relocates an asteroid. Planetary Resources, or a company like it, successfully captures a small ice-bearing asteroid and, over the course of a few months, moves it to a small processing craft. Once there, water is successfully extracted and converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
NASA seeks to purchase fuel produced from in-space resources. NASA releases a request-for-proposals seeking several tons of rocket fuel and liquid water derived from in-space resources; either asteroidal or lunar. The ‘Commercial Resources’ program, as it is called, is intended to enable Mars exploration by ‘living off the land’ in space, rather than launching everything up from Earth.
Commercial launches are common, safe and regularly scheduled. Between the burgeoning space station industry, nascent space mining ventures, and the International Mars Program, there is robust demand for launch services from both the public and private sectors. Launches occur on a timetable and both cargo and passenger fares are standardized, like the airline industry. Due to regular launch tempos, surging demand and constant innovation from numerous competitors, prices continue to fall, approaching $500 per pound to orbit.
Press hails the first ‘space settlement.’ Actually a very large space station it nevertheless incorporates technologies that will pave the way to a true space settlement: it rotates to provide artificial gravity, is designed to be upgrade-able and repair-able, and can accommodate larger industrial processes to extract and refine extraterrestrial resources. With a capacity of 100 people, it is the biggest structure in space and will pave the way for larger, more capable stations.
What do you think? Be sure to comment! (scroll to the top of the page to leave comments)
This Orbital Life is changing. Both Liam and I are starting to work on other projects that will prevent us from spending as much time on TOL as we normally have in the past. Specifically, there is an exciting opportunity to do research and writing for Russian Space Web, new podcasting collaborations and some consulting opportunities with a few space start-ups. All exciting stuff and all of it will be covered on TOL as the projects develop. But it means posting will be less frequent. It’s my hope that new content will be posted on a weekly basis and newsletters will go out once a month. However I will still immediately respond to your comments and emails. Thanks for your continued attention and support.
It’s been a week since This Orbital Life watched Mad Max: Fury Road. I left the theater in a daze.
The movie was…disorienting. But not necessarily in a bad way. The special effects were incredible – one can really believe that the post-apocalyptic wasteland depicted in the movie is real. That there is some benighted lost continent somewhere filled with radiation-blasted mutants and drugged-up syncophants driving highly-modified tractor trailers and souped-up 50’s cruisers. That ‘war parties’ of crazed violent men hyped up on heavy metal and paint-huffing are chasing nubile female ‘breeders,’ and an armless Charlize Theron across a desert filled with dudes on stilts and quasi-Tusken Raiders. If that sentence confuses and frightens you then you kinda get the idea what Mad Max is like.
Despite the intense, unsettling action Mad Max: Fury Road has some redeeming qualities. It is one of the rare films where the hero is actually a heroine. Charlize Theron’s character is, quite simply, a bad-ass. She is assisted by Tom Hardy’s character (one of only two male characters depicted as being even remotely civil – the rest are vicious scumbags) and a gang of tough-as-nails lady bikers. The theme of female empowerment is not subtle – it basically whacks you over the head with it. But it was nice to see a movie where the females give it just as hard, even harder, than the guys.
Our recommendation: go see it. But be prepared to take Dramamine and a nap after you do.
On May 28, 1940 representatives from the U.S. Army met with super-genius Robert Goddard and they talked about rockets. At the time Professor Goddard was the world’s foremost expert on liquid-fueled rockets. How do I know this? Because he, um, invented the the first liquid-fueled rocket and had only spent his entire life working with them? Duh.
In the meeting Mr. Goddard offered all his research data, patents, and facilities for use by the military. For free. We can only presume he did this to not only advance the development of the technology (something he was passionate about) but also because war had broken out in Europe and maybe a giant tube filled with explosives might be useful in a future war?
What did the military say? They sort of scratched their heads, thought about it, and couldn’t figure out any good uses for rocket technology. They basically said no thanks. Seriously.
But you know who was interested in rockets? The Nazis. Germany had it’s own rocket genius (Hermann Oberth) who had independently developed a lot of the same stuff Goddard had. Being a bunch of homicidal maniacs bent on world domination, the Nazis instantly recognized the value of rockets as an offensive weapon. As such, Hitler’s government authorized full production of the V2 missile in September 1939, only months before the U.S. military rejected Goddard. Highly classified at the time, the V2 would become the world’s first ballistic missile. After five years of intense research and development, the V2 was ready to reign terror on the Allies. Thousands were fired on London and Antwerp in the last months of the war. It was awful.
How might the world have been different if the military had accepted Goddard’s offer? Might World War 2 have ended sooner? Would nuclear-tipped ICBMs have been developed faster, putting the world at greater risk? Might humanity have reached the moon earlier?
The Wachoskis made a pretty good flick, if you can tolerate the terrible acting. But honestly who watches a movie with Channing Tatum for the acting? No one smart, that’s who.
No, the reason you need to see Jupiter Ascending is for the special effects, plain and simple. It’s a classic universe-sized space opera with laser-filled dogfights, enormous battle cruisers, orbit-spanning space stations and lots of leather pants. They even figured out a way to squeeze a bunch of talking CGI dinosaurs into this movie. And it kinda works.
The plot is just good enough to keep you interested between apocalyptic space battles (spoiler alert: downtown Chicago gets riddled by blaster fire) and speeches by villains with British accents.
Bottom line, this is a great Friday night popcorn movie and well worth renting or buying on Amazon. Spring for the HD and watch it on a big screen if you can. Enjoy!
Mal is a space pirate. A space pirate with a heart of gold, sure, but a pirate nonetheless. How will future space settlements deal with space pirates and other unsavory characters?
This is just one of the questions discussed by the burgeoning field of astrosociology. If this sounds a little premature, consider this: there are anecdotes about astronauts on the International Space Station getting into arguments. If a handful of elite professionals holding similar values lose their cool in space, what will happen when hundreds or thousands of diverse, opinionated people have disagreements in space? Will these future towns in space devolve into anarchy? Shouldn’t we try to figure out a way to resolve conflicts and keep the peace in outer space now?
At it’s core, astrosociology is the study of the human dimension of outer space. It asks questions like:
what will happen to human culture when we make first contact with aliens? What are the religious implications? (Poll: If little green men ask, “take me to your leader,” what does that really mean? )
how will space hotels and, eventually, space colonies and planetary settlements, be governed? From earth, independently or some other way?
how will resources be allocated? For instance, oxygen is not free in space and has to be produced or imported. Will everyone have to pay a tax in order to get oxygen to breathe?
what nationality will a baby born in a space station receive? Is the very concept of nationality relevant for spaceborne societies?
Pretty crazy, right? Yeah I know. If you like this, check out our latest podcast or take our poll.
On May 21, 2005 the NASA space probe Cassini performed a fly-by maneuver in the vicinity of the moon Enceladus. Enceladus is a moon around the planet Saturn.
Why do we care about little ol’ Enceladus? Well, as a result of this fly-by (and other fly-bys as well as a ton of scientific analysis) we learned that Enceladus has an ocean of salty water underneath the ice on its surface. It’s also very seismically active, so active in fact that ‘cryovolcanoes’ shoot geysers of mineral-laden water thousands of miles up into space. It’s these cryovolcanoes that are feeding material into space that eventually coalesce to form one of the rings of Saturn. How cool is that?!?
You might be saying, Well, yeah that’s cool but so what?! Here is the bottom line: Because of all this water and seismic activity, scientists think that Enceladus is a prime candidate for hosting extraterrestrial microbial life. In short, Enceladus may be home to aliens! Little creepy crawly bacteria sized aliens, but aliens nonetheless.
This is why we care about Enceladus. Cassini is still active and the probe continues to study the Saturn ‘system.’ Who knows what other incredible discoveries it may make?
There is a problem with space exploration. Despite the fact that lots of new rockets are being built, almost no one is thinking about the next generation of space stations. Where will all those rockets go once the International Space Station (ISS) is decommissioned in 2028? Considering that the ISS took at least thirteen years to design before the first components were built (1985 to 1998), we should be laying the groundwork for it’s successor now.
Many people assume that Bigelow Aerospace will replace the ISS with a commercial space station. That might be true, but what if it doesn’t happen? What if funding dries up or the owner of the company changes his mind? It’s imprudent to put all of our space station eggs in one basket.
Of further concern is the fact that any conceivable follow-on station to the ISS (including Bigelow stations) will not be very different from today’s space station. They won’t incorporate major leaps in technology. Specifically, they will not rotate to provide artificial gravity, they will not use asteroidal or lunar resources as raw material to produce a portion of their expendable supplies (e.g. oxygen, water or radiation shielding) and they won’t be much bigger than existing stations. In short, they won’t provide a stepping stone to true ‘towns in space.’
The current lack of planning and innovation in space station design will greatly impede the shared goal of the space community: a permanent, self-sustaining, self-replicable human presence in outer space.
We need to start planning now for the next generation of space stations.
So what do we do? We need to start planning now! Specifically, a group of like-minded technically savvy individuals should get together to create a space station architecture that:
Can accomodate an order of magnitude increase in the size of crews over current designs. In other words, dozens or hundreds of people can stay there instead of just a handful of elite astronauts.
Is modular, flexible, upgrade-able and interchangeable to keep costs down and interoperability high.
Is ‘spinnable’ i.e. has components that can be manipulated to generate varying levels of artificial gravity.
Has components small enough and light enough to fit on the cheapest of launchers, especially the Space X rocket family.
Generates way more electricity than current space station infrastructure.
Incorporates in-situ resource utilization i.e. derives some of its supplies from asteroids or lunar raw materials.
Is cheap enough to get started without government assistance using not for profit or incremental revenue sources.
Over the next few months This Orbital Life will attempt to start this project. Anyone interested in joining us should send us an email or post a comment! Ad astra!
On May 14, 1933 a bunch of crazy science fiction writers built a rocket and launched it from a beach in Staten Island, NY. The group, known then as the American Interplanetary Society, would later become the American Rocket Society, a premier association of rocket scientists.
At the time, though, they were all amateurs with a crazy dream to go into space. So, over the objections of their significant others, they built their own rocket and fueled it with gasoline and liquid oxygen. Not surprisingly their first rocket, AIS-1, blew up during ground tests. But the second one went a little further before blowing up. It launched successfully and reached an altitude of 240 feet. This was one of the earliest rocket launches in the United States, and probably the first by a group of relative amateurs. It almost certainly inspired many young Americans to pursue rocketry and, eventually, aerospace engineering.
Here’s a nice summary of the American Interplanetary Society from the Smithsonian:
A group comprised mostly of science fiction writers formed the American Interplanetary Society in New York City in 1930. The fact that science fiction writers predominated was unique to America. It reflected that genre’s flourishing and the dearth—with the exception of Robert Goddard—of serious space theoreticians in America.
This explosion of space fantasy in the 1920s and ’30s was a double-edged sword for spaceflight advocates. It inspired young people to believe in the possibility of space travel but convinced many adults that the idea was absurd.
Hmmm sort of sounds like the state of space settlement today…
Imagine this: you’re in space, and you’re hungry. You’ve got ingredients and kitchen tools. You think, why not cook up a nice meal?
How might that work out? Cooking in space is very different from cooking on Earth because, as you know, there is very little gravity in space. While this may seem straightforward, the implications may not be obvious when it comes to cooking a meal.
Without gravity, it becomes impossible to pour liquids or shake powders into mixing bowls. Chopping vegetables is tricky because pieces of food could fly off in random directions. But it gets worse: apparently boiling water behaves differently in outer space than it does on Earth. Bubbles do not percolate up and out of a boiling pot. Rather, the entire mass of seething water pours out of the pot all at once, sort of like an exploding can of soda. Ouch!
Astronauts today eat the majority of their meals from pre-packaged, de-hydrated foil pouches. If eating all your meals from a foil pouch for months at a time sounds less-than-ideal, many astronauts would probably agree with you. In fact, astronaut Sandra Magnus is famous for her extensive cooking experiments during her time on the International Space Station.
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling inspired. Are you ready to cook that meal? Grab an onion and some duct tape and let’s get started!
Star-Crossed was a television show set in the near-future in 2024. The series follows a romance between a human girl and an alien boy when he and six others of his kind are integrated into a suburban high school. This Orbital Life watched the pilot episode.
It was awful. The executives at the CW network should be tarred and feathered for continuing this travesty for 13 episodes. Luckily they came to their senses and cancelled the show in May 2014. Here are four reasons why:
1. Pretty much every human being in the show is a jerk. Trigger-happy soldiers try to start an interplanetary war, racist protesters shout at the aliens to go back to their planet, high school bullies manhandle pretty alien girls in the halls. It appears that the aliens managed to crash-land in a city that has only three decent people. Watching this show will completely destroy any shred of faith you may still have in humanity. It’s depressing.
2. The lead actress is supposed to be 16 but looks like she’s 30. It was distracting how old she looked in some scenes. And the slow-motion jogging scene was so cheesy it made me want to puke.
3. They deleted “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance scene. The show is set in Louisiana. Does anyone really believe a public high school in Baton Rouge would delete the God part of the Pledge of Allegiance? The lack of credibility was distracting.
4. The best joke, the one where the hunky alien dude mentions he has two hearts, was dumb. (“One of my hearts stopped beating for a few minutes. Luckily I had a backup.” der der.
Star-Crossed had a lot of potential to be a crazy mash-up of Romeo and Juliet meets District 9. At the end of the day, though, it was just too dreary, too little attention was paid to the details and the plot was just too pedestrian for the show to be watchable. Apparently the viewers of CW agreed and they crossed Star-Crossed off their lists. Good riddance.
This Orbital Life recently watched The Right Stuff. It was good, and anyone curious about the history of the American space program really should watch it. But it could have been so much better. Here are four ways The Right Stuff could have become The Perfect Stuff:
1. Make it shorter. The movie was three hours long. Exhausting, although the end was worth waiting for.
2. Better acting in the supporting roles. Some of the characters were just way over the top, which may have been the point. John Glenn was portrayed as a gee golly shucks robot Boy Scout while all the astronaut’s wives were portrayed as tittering, nervous wrecks (but not Glamorous Glennis, Chuck Yeager’s wife). Don’t even get me started on Lyndon Johnson and the NASA public relations guy – they were almost cartoonish in their behavior. I get that the movie was trying to caricature the state of American culture at the time, but these characters were so absurd it was distracting and almost hard to watch.
3. Cut out the superstitious crap. The movie discusses how pilots were scared of breaking the sound barrier because it would anger the “demons” in the sky. Later in the film, Australian Aborigine campfires were juxtaposed with ice crystals coming off of John Glenn’s capsule in space. Eye-rollingly cheesy. I get that the movie maker was trying to insert some sort of metaphysical aspect to the movie to increase tension or something but in the end it all just fell flat.
4. Stick to the main idea. When I sat down to watch the movie, I made the mistake of thinking it would be a movie about astronauts and spaceflight. But what it’s really about is men with incredible, titanic, reckless courage. Literally legendary levels of courage. Flying an experimental aircraft with a broken rib to the edge of space or sitting in a tin-can on top of hundreds of tons of high explosives designed by guys who were very recently Nazis takes a lot of balls. And that’s what this movie is about – guys who had guts. I think all the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo and supporting role nonsense took away from that. Perhaps a re-make is needed?