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.
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.
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
Thor. Atlas. Titan. Minuteman. Peacekeeper. Names of comic book heroes? No, but just as good at keeping you safe at night. These are the names of intercontinental ballistic missiles developed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Vandenberg was established today in 1957 and is America’s premier launch site for military rockets and spacecraft. Only Cape Canaveral surpasses it in terms of bragging rights and reputation. Since it’s founding there have been almost 2000 missile and rocket launches from the storied facility. It’s named for the intimidating looking fellow above, U.S. Air Force General Hoyt Vandenberg.
Originally part of an Army base, the Air Force received 100 square miles in this remote coastal California location in 1956. Besides helping develop weapon systems that helped win the Cold War (and continue to terrify tyrants and dictators throughout the world), Vandenberg was also briefly the home of an alternate Space Shuttle launch pad and, very briefly, a military space station program. Both were eventually cancelled.
On April 14, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, successfully completing the first Space Shuttle mission. STS-1 was a test flight of what was, at the time, the most complex spacecraft ever built. John W. Young, a veteran of the Apollo-Soyuz program, and Robert L. Crippen were the only crew members.
During second flight day of STS-1, the astronauts received a phone call from Vice President George H. W. Bush. President Ronald Reagan had originally intended to visit the Mission Control Center during the mission, but at the time was still recovering from an assassination attempt which had taken place two weeks before the launch (in fact Reagan had only returned home to the White House the day prior to the launch).
Notably, STS-1 was one of only two shuttle flights to have its External Tank (ET) painted white. To reduce the shuttle’s overall weight, all flights from STS-3 onward used an unpainted tank. The use of an unpainted tank provided a weight saving of approximately 272 kilograms (600 lb),and gave the ET the distinctive orange color which later became associated with the Space Shuttle.
STS-1 was beginning of a historic effort in space. The Shuttle program would have 134 more missions until it was terminated in 2011. Over it’s lifetime, the program cost about $196 billion. Fourteen astronauts died as a result of two Shuttle accidents, Challenger and Columbia. Despite these tragedies, Space Shuttles helped build the International Space Station and launch valuable satellites like the Hubble Telescope.
On April 7, 2001 NASA launched the Mars Odyssey spacecraft from Cape Canaveral. Mars Odyssey is an orbital probe (not a lander) that circles the Red Planet. It’s mission, essentially, is to act as a communications satellite for landers on the surface and to detect water on Mars. It found strong evidence for water in 2002, a discovery that was later confirmed by the Phoenix lander in 2008.
On March 30, 1964 a humble NASA bureaucrat somewhere in the bowels of the Marshall Space Flight Center signed off on a contract with Rocketdyne. What was he (or she, maybe?) buying? Seventy-six of these babies:
What you’re looking at is a set of F-1 rocket engines on the back of Saturn V moon rocket. The F-1 is the largest liquid-fueled rocket engine ever flown and it’s a big reason America made it to the Moon. Their size and majesty speak for themselves. In case you’re wondering, the guy standing with them is none other than Werhner Von Braun himself, the brainchild behind this beast of a rocket.
What was the cost? $158.4 million dollars, or about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. A steal, if you ask me.
So, what do you think? Can SpaceX top it? How about the SLS? Only time will tell.
In the midst of March Storm this week, a revelation struck: humanity is on the brink of achieving some long-held technological goals. Specifically, fusion power, self-driving cars, and moon colonies may only be a few years away from becoming reality. Think that’s nuts? Read on and decide for yourself.
You may be aware of the government-funded fusion power mega-projects at the ITER and NIF. (You know they must be government-funded because they use inscrutable acronyms). And if you’re aware of them, you’re probably unimpressed, as we are, at their chances for success.
What makes this announcement different from previous ones is that The Skunk Works has a track record of success developing cutting edge technology: the U-2 spy plane and, most famously, the Stealth Fighter. The (well-funded!) geniuses at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works have as good a shot as the government types at taming the potential of fusion power.
Ok so technically this scifi fantasy already exists. But the question is, when can I buy one? When will it be common place to hop in a car and it automatically chauffeurs you where you need to go? Some experts think it will be decades before that happens. But we here at This Orbital Life think the demand for this technology will be so great that widespread adoption will happen sooner rather than later.
So when can you take a vacation on the moon? When can we definitively confirm that creepy alien monoliths are not buried in craters up there?
Before answering this question, consider how fast launch rates (i.e. the cost to go to space) has fallen. Four years ago, during the last Shuttle flight, it cost $10,000 to put one pound into orbit. Today, with the Falcon 9, it costs $2,111 for one pound to orbit. The reusable Falcon 9 could drop that to below $1,000, possibly as low as $321 per pound.
Thinking even further ahead, the Cheap Access to Space Prize will establish airliner-like operations to space. In other words, you would get aboard a rocket-ship and fly into space just like you do on an airliner today. The Space Frontier Foundation and other advocacy groups are hoping to establish the CATS prize as U.S. law in three to four years. Once it’s won, the cost to access space will plummet, and the amount of human activity in space, including on the Moon, will explode.
What do you think? Take our poll and let us know if you think we’re being too conservative, spot-on, or wildly, insanely optimistic.
There you are, floating around in your cozy space suit and suddenly, inexplicably, your glove pops off. Your hand is exposed to the freezing harsh vacuum of outer space. What would happen?
Would you explode? Would your hand freeze and shatter into a thousand pieces? Would you die? Is it time to panic?!? This is not a drill, people!!!
Ok take it easy. We here at This Orbital Life have you covered. Apparently something like this already happened. And the guy it happened to is perfectly fine.
On August 16, 1960 US Air Force Captain Joseph Kittinger rode in a high-altitude ballon up to a height of 19 miles. At 19 miles the air pressure is negligible. You can see the curvature of the earth and the black of space. In fact, at that height you’re basically in space and therefore you need to wear a space suit.
On the ride up there, the Captain’s glove malfunctioned: it popped a leak. His hand was exposed to space. It swelled up to twice its size. But he did not die. His hand did not explode. It did not freeze and shatter. He completed the mission by jumping out of that balloon (!!) and successfully parachuting down to Earth. His hand eventually returned to normal and he was fine.
In fact, Captain Joe Kittinger continued his career as an American badass. He flew fighter jets over Vietnam and shot down an enemy Mig. He got shot down himself and survived the Hanoi Hilton POW camp. Much later he was a key advisor to Red Bull and Felix Baumgartner on their world-record breaking parachute jump. Capt Kittinger is still alive, probably chewing lead and spitting bullets. If you’re interested to learn more about him, read his autobiography titled Come Up and Get Me. And if you’re wondering why the Air Force paid to have a guy jump out of a balloon from space, you’re really asking the wrong questions, dude.
So, bottom line, it appears that having an extremity exposed to the harshness of space will not immediately kill you. It won’t even do any real permanent damage! You might get a crazy sunburn (like, instant melanoma) if it’s exposed to the sun but assuming your oxygen supply is good and you can get to shelter quickly, prior evidence indicates you should be ok. Now don’t you feel better?
Lots of interesting news this week. Let’s dive in:
69% of Americans would not accept a free trip to space
This SpaceNews.com article was a harsh reminder that lots of people just aren’t that into space travel. Over two-thirds of the respondents of this particular survey, when offered a free trip to go into space said thanks but no thanks. What is that about!? Maybe they’re scaredy-cats. Maybe they’re boring. Who knows? But the fact is we in the space advocacy community have a lot of work to do to persuade people that space travel is exciting, lucrative and viable.
Europa will be explored ahead of schedule
You know Europa, right?
No not that Europa, I mean the moon orbiting Jupiter. You know, the one the has a gigantic ocean underneath miles of ice? The one that has the best chance of harboring alien life. Well NASA said today that it’s Europa Clipper probe is ahead of schedule. If all goes well, we can look forward to a launch in 2022. Interestingly, the probe is likely to use solar power, even all the way out in a Jovian orbit.
Magical nanotech skylight replicates sunlight to enable enclosed space settlements
According to Wired, some really clever Italian scientist invented a skylight that accurately mimics sunlight. The implications for space settlement are obvious. Previous designs incorporated massive, complex mirror arrays to let in pleasant sunlight but keep out harmful radiation. This gizmo, if it works and can be scaled (way, way) up, would eliminate the need for those mirrors thereby simplifying the design of orbital settlements. Simple is better, and cheaper. This skylight can also improve the quality of life for subterranean bases on the Moon and Mars. In fact, in the article the inventor references this idea, calling such underground structures ‘groundscapers.’ Neat.
Space. It’s vast. It’s majestic. It’s so big it defies comprehension and, occasionally, description. But, what if space were full of people? People with smartphones? What if there were communities teeming with people living, working and playing up there? They’d probably have lots to say about their experiences in orbit amongst the space colonies scattered across the high frontier.
Fair reader, you’re in luck. I have traveled to the future and obtained a representative sample of tweets from space. What follows are some examples of what humans might say about their lives in future space settlements:
Can’t believe how big this place is @IslandThree! There are actually rain clouds in here! And I can’t see down to the other side! #impressed
Space settlements will be big – much bigger than contemporary ‘tin-can’ space stations like ISS or Tiangong-1. The latest space settlement design, Kalpana One, envisions a cylinder 250 meters in diameter and 325 meters long – about the size of some of the largest cruise ships today. Kalpana One can accommodate 3,000 people living in a business park-like setting. This is a small space settlement – some of the larger designs are miles long and can host hundreds of thousands of people along with plenty of space for forests, farms, lakes and rivers. All of these structures can be built in space using the same kinds of proven techniques that for decades have been used to construct massive supertankers in shipyards here on Earth. The challenge is getting the labor and raw materials to start the first community. Perhaps we should check the help-wanted ads…
Wanted: Agile people with strong upper bodies for lucrative work. Personalized spacesuit included. Join the elite asteroid miners today! #PR-HR
Immediate opening: 3D printer technician, must have experience with molten metals in a hazardous environment. Good pay, great views #Spiderfab-HR
The primary reason existing space stations are so small is that they are built on Earth and launched into space on rockets. And rockets are expensive – it costs over $4,000 to launch one kilogram into space on the cheapest rocket available today. But future space settlements will not be built on Earth and launched into space. In-situ raw materials – collected primarily from asteroids – will be refined and shaped into the beams, panels, and windows that will form the settlement. Just like sailing ships carried shovels and axes to the New World (not log cabins and farm silos), rockets will be used to carry the tools that will build settlements – not the settlements themselves.
Furthermore, the human resources paradigm of space travel is going to change. Currently, thousands of support personnel on Earth work to launch a handful of people into space. That is set to change as new launch companies field rockets that require only a handful of support staff. Better rockets and lower labor costs mean rockets can launch more frequently which will make them both safer and cheaper. Soon, a minority of people on Earth will work to support thousands of people living, working and playing in space. And all those people will need to eat. Are you getting hungry? Let’s see what’s on the menu in orbit…
For all you space cadet foodies: tried the @Bernal bioreactor algae pudding – gooey, weird and sweet. #spacecuisine
@IslandThree’s solar-roasted tilapia is “flaky, light and delicious” says @SnootyChef. Try the local veggies too! #spacecuisine
Many people enjoy the novelty of freeze-dried, packaged ‘space food’ (remember “astronaut ice cream” when you were kid on those trips to the museum?) but few people would want to eat that for the rest of their lives. Luckily, space settlements will have the capability to grow fresh food. In fact, space settlements will be required to grow much of their own food because of the size of their populations and the exorbitant cost to ship food up from Earth. The unusual space environment and unique architecture of space colonies will allow for extremely productive agriculture. First, the sun shines all day in space allowing for major energy inputs into production. Second, irrigation, fertilization, sowing and harvesting will be tightly controlled and integrated into the architecture of the settlement. Third, pests, weather and other Earth-bound agricultural problems will not afflict farming in space. All of these factors will combine to supercharge food and fiber production in space settlements.
So, we’ve arrived, we’ve got a good job and we’ve got plenty of food to eat. But what is there to do for fun in space? Contemporary spacetourismcompanies are betting that people will pay millions of dollars to simply look out the window at Earth and spin around in zero-gravity for a week. While that may appeal to some, most may quickly bore of it and start looking for more. Recreation in a space settlement will offer many more options than what current space tourism provides. Spherical pools floating in mid-air, piloting an actual starfighter, and literally flying like a bird are just a few of the possibilities….
Exclusively @IslandThree Resort: come fly a REAL X-Wing in ACTUAL space! Shoot drones and complete the obstacle course. Earn your Rebel wings! #RogueSquadron
Dive into the water, stroke stroke stroke then I shoot out the other side! Spherical pools @Bernal resort are crazy! #nextOlympicsport ?
That was fun but space settlements can serve a higher purpose than merely offering sustenance or recreation. Throughout history there are numerous instances of people with similar religious or philosophical leanings banding together to form communities where they can pursue their interests without interference. Space settlements offer the ultimate refuge for people seeking peace and isolation.
Want to live in harmony with like-minded individuals? Do you feel a (much) higher calling? Come join us in the first temple in orbit! #L5Mormons
In fact, a recent film made the exact same conclusion (albeit in a wholly negative light) that space settlements can act as enclaves for like-minded individuals.
Human nature being what it is, it is unlikely that space settlement will be as innocuous, high-minded and fun as depicted in the selection of tweets above. But the purpose of space settlement should not be to create utopias in the sky. While they can expand the resource base of Earth and provide a higher standard of living for all who occupy them, space settlements will not by themselves eliminate war, greed, stupidity or laziness. Rather, the purpose of space settlement is to expand the stage upon which the human drama plays out. Space settlements will be little Earths full of love, hate, sadness and joy. While the food there may be better and the recreation might be different, space settlements, at the end of the day, will be like little Earths: familiar and cozy.
I just read the Orbital Space Settlement Tasks page on Al Globus’ website. Very interesting reading. I think I might try this mini Closed Ecological Life Support System ‘experiment’:
Do research into closed ecological life support systems by placing small amounts of soil, plants, and microbes in sealed jars. See how long they can survive with just sunlight coming in.
Ok so a quick google search of “closed jar terrariums” shows that this is actually pretty common. This person has a pretty cool site on how to make them using moss. Looks likeactivated carbon is an essential ingredient – possibly to filter out contaminants?
How nice would it be to be able to walk barefoot over soft moss and pick little flowers growing in greenhouses in the next generation of space stations?
In a previous post I described the four new options for amassing raw materials in orbit for the purpose of space development. They are: using rockets to lift stuff up from Earth, using mass drivers on the moon to shoot regolith into orbit, capturing asteroids a la Planetary Resources, and constructing a lunar space elevator a la LiftPort to transfer lunar ore into orbit. In this post I will describe the basic advantages and disadvantages of each method.
The goal here is to determine the fastest and most cost-efficient method for collecting hundreds of tons of raw material in Earth orbit. Hundreds of tons – if not thousands – are necessary to manufacture the large structures necessary to develop space i.e. to build a self-sustainable and self-replicating civilization in orbit. Let’s talk pros and cons one by one:
I. Rockets – There are several big benefits to using rockets:
Proven technology with a deep market: rockets are proven and there are lots of vendors to choose from. It’s the “devil we know” versus the other technologies which are all unproven.
Direct to orbit: rockets are the only option available to boost items directly from the Earth’s surface. This, in theory, allows one to boost finished structures to orbit, skipping the raw material/manufacturing stage. This is both a blessing and a curse: while having some finished products in orbit will be useful (Bigelow modules and 3d printers immediately come to mind), especially in the early stages of space development, ultimately the goal is to build an indigenous manufacturing base in orbit, not just boost everything up from Earth. Also, rockets are the only way to get people into orbit!
However, the major drawback to using rockets is, of course, their expense. Rockets are ultimately too expensive to boost anything except the highest value cargo. This is reef that every space development has foundered on since the beginning of the space age.
Future posts will discuss mass drivers, asteroid capture and lunar space elevators.
Since the halcyon days of Gerard K. O’Neill and his grand visions of massive solar power satellites and palatial space colonies, space cadets the world over have pondered the best way to collect the raw materials necessary to construct such structures in orbit. Many, including myself, deferred to Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that the lunar mass driver is the best mechanism to amass a raw material base in orbit. Indeed, there is something elegant in the idea of combining thousands of tiny cargos to form one large resource pile, as opposed to the brute force concept of launching one gargantuan payload at great expense. On the one hand, space enthusiasts have the familiar image of an explosive rocket breaking the surly bonds of Earth (and occasionally failing) in order to put a complete payload into orbit. But O’Neill offered a new, more tranquil vision: rows of silent, miles-long electromagnetic catapults safely and efficiently zooming thousands of tiny payloads into orbit over many months.
But how times have changed. Today we have two additional visions. The first involves Planetary Resources and asteroid capture. The second involves LiftPort and the lunar space elevator.
As the readers of this blog know, Planetary Resources is a well-funded and well-staffed outfit based in Seattle, WA. They hope to develop new technology and methods to eventually capture and mine near-earth asteroids. LiftPort, the space elevator company, is also based in Seattle, WA and is slightly less well-funded and well-staffed than Planetary Resources. However, I would argue that LiftPort’s ideas and vision generate just as much enthusiasm as do the ideas of Planetary Resources. Furthermore, LiftPort has already failed and resurrected itself AND has successfully crowd-sourced innovation in the past. These two factors alone (perseverance in the face of failure and the ability to manage far-flung groups of researchers) indicate that LiftPort has the potential for success*. In fact, one could argue that Planetary Resources, with its venture capital and in-house engineering staff, represents the old style (1990s) of aerospace innovation while LiftPort, with its open(er)-source development plan and bootstrapping culture represents a new way, or at least a different way, of generating innovation.
But let’s get to brass tacks – which method is the best way to support space development: rockets, mass drivers, capturing asteroids or lunar space elevators? In future posts I will discuss how each of these options have benefits and drawbacks to amassing raw materials in orbit. UPDATE: Part 1 of 4 (Rockets) is linked above.
*Full disclosure: I used to work for LiftPort. I quit in 2004, thinking at the time that the company was doomed. In 2007, I was proven right. But now, in 2012, I’m not too sure. LiftPort is scrappy and their vision is mesmerizing. Even if they don’t build a space elevator, they might generate enough IP and interest to get bought up by Google X Labs or some other group of yuppie-genius billionaires who will then carry the LiftPort vision to fruition.
Something strange is brewing in Seattle. Consider this: yesterday Planetary Resources, a new space start-up, announced that it will “ensure humanity’s prosperity” by overlaying “two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” Before you call bullspit, you ought to know that PR is backed by an all-star crew of space cadets: Peter Diamandis, Eric Anderson, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, James Cameron* and some NASA genius named Chris Lewicki, amongst others. Planetary Resources will make a big announcement on Tuesday at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
Then, today, I read a blog post about some company called Arkyd Astronautics and how they plan on having a major press conference on Tuesday at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Who runs this outfit? None other than NASA genius Chris Lewicki. A coincidence? I think not. What gives?
Turns out these two organizations are linked but their marketing/PR people are not. Best as I can tell, Arkyd will be working with Planetary Resources to attempt to recover a platinum-bearing asteroid. Translation:
Internet billionaires are working with NASA geniuses to figure out a way to capture and mine an asteroid.
If this is true (it’s all speculation at this point), this would be the biggest space news since Virgin Galactic was announced. Probably bigger as the implications are much more serious: this venture, even if mildly successful, could jump-start space development and ultimately lead to the settlement of extraterrestrial bodies. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment in space-based infrastructure, if not billions.
The press conference announcing the details is scheduled for Tuesday April 24 at 10:30 am PDT.
This is not a drill, people. Take a deep breath because the space age is just starting.
*God help James Cameron and all these knuckleheads if this is some kind of stupid publicity stunt for a movie.
I’m starting to think humanity is on the brink of a full-fledged space renaissance, and this time for real. The good news just keeps on coming, this time from the venerable Space Studies Institute. Yes, that SSI. The one founded by Gerard K. O’Neill, the godfather of space cadets everywhere. The guy who invented the space colony. The one that used to be headquartered in Princeton, NJ (of all places) and spent the last twenty years being irrelevant until it got a new lease of life with its new President Gary Hudson. Yes, that Space Studies Institute.
SSI has got its mojo back and recently announced that it’s going to – basically – build a space station using private donations:
In order to investigate the long-term effects of partial gravity on humans and other vertebrates, the Space Studies Institute proposes the private development of a co-orbital free-flyer laboratory, in trail ~10 km aft of and station-keeping with the International Space Station (ISS)….
Our SSI approach calls for these initial three phases to be funded exclusively by private contributions or sponsorships.
Talk about ballsy! I didn’t find any concrete numbers but something like this will probably cost at least $200 million. Think about it: design, development and construction of a small space station and then a “heavy launch” vehicle to get it all into orbit. The launch alone will cost ~$100 million using the lowest-cost launcher (almost) available: the Falcon 9 Heavy.
But will SSI accept donations in kind? Hmm let’s see. I know (of) a guy who is selling space stations. And I know (of) a guy who is selling rockets. If the justification to ask for hundreds of millions of dollars in donations is that the donor wants to remembered forever, why not go straight to the biggest space geeks out there who, by the way, have exactly what you need anyway?
In short, if they’re being ballsy, SSI should just ask Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace to donate a BA-330 module to this effort and ask Elon Musk to donate a Falcon 9 Heavy launch to put the G-Lab in orbit. You can call it the Bigelow-Musk Orbital Research Facility or something like that. Bottom line, it gets the job done. And, as my dad always said, there’s no harm in asking!
This is both good and bad news. It’s good for obvious reasons: commercial industry is becoming more confident with electric engine technology and is attempting to incorporate it into nongovernmental (i.e. more risky) payloads. I hope to see greater use of this technology moving forward.
This is bad news, however, because it could signal the end of what was a promising business opportunity in space: interorbital space transfer shuttles or “tugs.”
For decades scientists and engineers have proposed space tugs as a way to reduce launch costs to geosynchronous orbit and, more recently, as a way to make money. Now that Boeing has figured out a way to incorporate the ‘tug technology’ directly into the satellite, the space tug line-of-business may be closing, or at least drastically reduced. As capitalists we must applaud greater efficiency in the space economy, but as space enthusiasts we feel a bit disappointed that now there is one less (obvious) opportunity for entrepreneurship in orbit. However, in time, this technological development may lead to something better that no one has thought of yet. Progress marches on!
NASA and JPL, two obviously reputable space exploration organizations, have claimed that there a billion meter-sized asteroids in near-Earth space! The exact quote:
Because of their small size, object’s [sic] of this size are difficult to discover but there is likely to be nearly a billion objects of this size and larger in near-Earth space and one would expect one to strike Earth’s atmosphere every few weeks on average.
This is very exciting news for the Dragon Flyer. It means that there are potentially hundreds of millions of targets for the mission. However, I am skeptical – this seems too good to be true. The full article (read it here) offers no substantiation for the billion-asteroid claim and does not define “near-Earth space.” Also notice that pesky clause “and larger.” Are most of the asteroids about a meter in diameter or are most larger than what can be accommodated by the Dragon Flyer? So many questions! Thus, I have contacted the authors for more information. Stay tuned!
Another month, another Dragon launch delay. The second Dragon-ISS test flight (and third Falcon 9 flight, ever) will not occur before March 20. It was originally scheduled for January. But do I look worried? Not at all. This flight will combine two test flights into one and thus requires “an insane amount” of testing and preparation, as described by Elon Musk. This need for testing and combining two flights into one is the reason for the delay. However, because it will kill two birds with one stone, accomplish two test flights at once, SpaceX may actually be ahead of its development schedule after a successful late March/early April launch. So this delay, in the long run, is no big deal.
Conspiracy theory alert: could SpaceX be planning its first cargo run to ISS during election season in order to give a boost to NASA’s commercial space efforts and thus Pres. Obama?
The news media reported yesterday that SpaceX has sold two more Falcon 9 launches. SpaceX will launch two AsiaSat ‘birds’ in 2014. On a rocket that has flown twice. Two years ago. Using a fairing that hasn’t even been tested, let alone built. What kind of magic fairy dust are the sales people at Space X sprinkling around to get these sales? And AsiaSat isn’t alone – SpaceX has a healthy launch manifest for its Falcon 9 with billions of dollars of launches on back order from both government and commercial customers.
My question is – what are all these people smoking?
Now, don’t get me wrong – you won’t find a bigger cheerleader for SpaceX than me. But let’s get real – the Falcon 9 has flown twice. The third (test!!) launch has been delayed numerous times for various reasons (some out of SpaceX’s control, to be fair). Forgive me for my ignorance but how is SpaceX selling all these launches? Is it price competition? Does the swaggering Elon Musk charm these guys into a trance to get them to sign the dotted line?
Or are we witnessing space development hype become space development reality? Will SpaceX really pull it off? I sure hope so.
Manyspaceenthusiasts propose extracting precious metals* from asteroids as way to pay for space development. Other space enthusiasts argue that water should be the target of asteroid miners. Mark Sonter has done a particularly thorough job arguing in favor of water, as opposed to precious metals. Personally, I’m agnostic. However, I did some back of the envelope calculations regarding both scenarios. Here they are:
Let’s assume we get an investor to spend $500 million on an asteroid water harvesting mission. That includes the investor’s profit and all mission costs. How much water could we get for that amount?
The competition is water launched from Earth. NASA just bought 12 Falcon 9 launches for $1.6 Billion. That’s $134 million per launch (rounded up) or approximately $2342/lb launched to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Let’s say we sell our asteroid harvested water for $2000/lb in order to beat the competition.
$500,000,000 total mission cost / $2000/lb of water = 250,000 lbs of water.
This is slightly less than eleven Falcon 9 launches worth of water. So now, of course, the big question is can one profitably sell asteroid-harvested water for $2000/lb? Dunno. This is just back of the envelope play time, not real research. But what about the shiny metal stuff? How might that work out?
This time around, instead of an investor, let’s pretend our super-rich uncle hands you a check for $500 million, musses up your hair, and says, “Go get me some gold in space, kiddo!” So you round up Elon Musk and Burt Rutan and a bunch of crazy wild-eyed geniuses and you cobble together a mission. A few years later you wrangle a gold-bearing asteroid in LEO. How much gold have you collected? Hope you still have some room left on the back of that envelope…
Oh good, plenty of space.
Let’s assume you’re not going to deorbit the asteroid, but rather sell it to another entity that will extract the gold in orbit (you’ll see why later**). So, instead of the market price, you sell it for $500/troy ounce to give the mining entity some room for their own costs and profit. There are 32.15 troy ounces in one kilogram. Therefore:
$500/troy ounce x 32.15 troy ounces/kg = $16,075/kg
So, how much gold do we need to mine in order to break even?
$500,000,000/$16,075 = 31,105 kg of gold to break even
Chances are only a portion of the asteroid will actually be gold. Let’s assume a very optimistic 5% concentration of gold in our asteroid. So that means to get 31,105 kg of gold to break even, the rock is 622,100 total kg. If we assume a density of 1000 kg/m3 (total guess, and it makes the math easy) for the gold-bearing asteroidal material then the asteroid is 622.1 m3. Therefore, the diameter of the asteroid is a surprisingly manageable 10.6 meters. A space rock about the size of a house could be worth $500 million, in theory at least.
A space rock about the size of a house could be worth $500 million, in theory at least.
Hmm maybe this will work. Use this handy calculator to figure out how to make Uncle Moneybags some profit once a gold-bearing asteroid is discovered in near Earth orbit.
*Wait wait wait – what about platinum?!? All those links at the beginning of the post talk about platinum, and the associated platinum group metals, as being the best target for asteroid miners. Well, the price of gold right now is $1730.75 per troy ounce. Platinum? $1652 per troy ounce. There may be compelling reasons for pursuing the less-expensive platinum but, at least for back-of-the-envelope fun time, I prefer to use the shiny metal with the higher market price.
**I am highly skeptical that $500 million is enough money to both capture the asteroid and place mining infrastructure in orbit or figure out a way to safely deorbit an asteroid 10.6 meters in diameter. Let someone else with deeper pockets figure it out.