Tag Archives: International Space Station

Calling all (Space Station) Architects!

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.

The proposed Bigelow Station. Nice, but it would be nice to have a back-up plan too. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
The proposed Bigelow Station. Nice, but it would be nice to have a back-up plan too. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Is modular, flexible, upgrade-able and interchangeable to keep costs down and interoperability high.
  3. Is ‘spinnable’ i.e. has components that can be manipulated to generate varying levels of artificial gravity.
  4. Has components small enough and light enough to fit on the cheapest of launchers, especially the Space X rocket family.
  5. Generates way more electricity than current space station infrastructure.
  6. Incorporates in-situ resource utilization i.e. derives some of its supplies from asteroids or lunar raw materials.
  7. 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!



Wednesday’s Word: What is 3D Printing?

As you may have read, Italian turbo-hottie astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti brewed the first espresso in space on the International Space Station the other day.  According to several articles, she drank her (undoubtedly delicious) Italian coffee out of a ‘3D-printed espresso cup.’

3D printed astro-espresso cup. Science!! Credit: NASA
3D printed astro-espresso cup. Science!! Credit: NASA

What the heck is 3D printing?  It is increasingly common in news and culture but you may not know exactly what it means.  You should, especially because it has huge implications for expanding human activities in outer space.

3D printing is, essentially, a new type of manufacturing.  Conventional (non-3D) manufacturing means taking a chunk of raw material and basically hacking/carving/slicing off bits until the final shape is produced.  It’s not that different from carving a sculpture from marble.

Another Italian hottie, not 3D-printed.
Another Italian hottie, not 3D-printed.

But 3D printing works the opposite way: a special machine lays down individual bits of raw material (usually plastic or something that can be easily manipulated) and slowly builds up a shape.  That’s why 3D printing is more accurately called ‘additive manufacturing’: layer upon layer of raw material are slowly built up until the final product is produced.

Why is this such a big deal for space travel?  3D printing in space has proven to be easier, faster and less expensive than conventional manufacturing.  This could be especially useful for a Mars mission with regards to spare parts.  It will be impossible to carry back-up equipment to cover every conceivable contingency on Mars.  With 3D printing, however, spare parts could be manufactured on demand.  Looking even further ahead, giant 3D printers could churn out space station parts and lunar base components using raw materials derived from Moon dirt and asteroids.  In short, 3D printing is a key technology that will enable space exploration and a permanent human presence in outer space.

So now you know about 3D printing.  As a reward for reading this entire article, here is a pic of Samantha Cristoforetti.


Thirsty? Get your Espresso Products Here!



How will cosmic radiation affect space settlement?

by Liam Ginty

As we push toward a space settlement future, some of the earliest safety questions will regard deadly radiation. How will people live safely in space for extended periods of time amidst the ocean of cosmic rays that surrounds our planet and permeates space beyond the protective bubble of Earth’s magnetosphere? What methods of protection will the people living and working in space colonies need, and how capable are we of providing those protections now?

Surprisingly, the question of radiation is a relatively short term one. It is thought that around six feet of soil or around two meters of water works as an effective radiation shield[1], and the citizens of a large scale space colony would have a great deal more mass than that between them and the invisible rays bombarding their home. The risk of radiation is one that the earliest pioneers would have to face: the asteroid miners, construction workers, and architects working and living in the orbital equivalent of pre-fab offices and living spaces.

Solar Radiation

A coronal mass ejection captured by the SOHO satellite (credits: NASA).

There are several kinds of radiation that threaten the early settlers of space. Solar radiation is the most common and is one of the easier threats to negate. The more problematic elements of solar radiation come from coronal mass ejections. These massive solar events happen fairly frequently, around once every five days. They see the Sun shudder off intense solar weather; this solar wind carries an incredible amount of charged particles that could be dangerous to any insufficiently shielded humans, or even computers, in space.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have experienced these ejections countless times, and by and large they have been relatively uneventful. There is a procedure in place whereby astronauts are to retreat to heavily shielded areas of the ISS (such as the Discovery module, or the Zarya module), close the window shutters and wait out the solar storm. Similar tactics could be utilized by the builders and miners living in space – their short term homes could be constructed with a central radiation shelter, reinforced with crushed rocks and metals or a layer of water.

Cosmic Rays

Galactic cosmic rays are a wholly different story.  Mysterious beams of charged particles from far off supernovae moving with more energy than those launched by the Large Hadron Collider, cosmic rays stand as one of the most severe barriers to orbital colonization. These charged particles are notoriously difficult to shield against and some shielding can actually increases the amount of radiation exposure[2]. It’s thought that exposure to these rays alone would increase an adult’s chance of lethal cancer by 10-17% over the span of 3 years[3].

  Coronal mass ejections seem to ‘deflect’ galactic cosmic rays

Interestingly, the spurts of increased solar weather brought on by coronal ejections may actually help protect our hypothetical pioneers. Due to an observed, but not entirely understood effect known as a Forbush Decrease, coronal mass ejections seem to ‘deflect’ galactic cosmic rays that can provide a window of reduced exposure. This, combined with a series of mechanical and biological radiation protection could prove invaluable to the future workers of space.

The risks posed by these rays are not solely biological. Cosmic rays can cause EMP-like effects on electronics and cosmic rays are thought to have caused damage to the Voyager 2 probe in 2010. Cosmic rays and radiation can cause ‘soft errors’ in sensitive electronics, such as corrupted data, unusual CPU performance, and other issues. As transistors shrink in size, these issues are becoming a concern for ground-level electronics. Several solutions for these issues already exist, with most space-borne electronics being ‘rad-hardened’ to avoid many of the issues. Research is still ongoing, with more advanced concepts, such as Intel’s proposal for including a ‘Cosmic Ray Detector’ in future processors, which would resend commands when a cosmic ray is detected.


These rays may seem unbeatable, but conventional shielding can reduce exposure significantly. Assuming construction of thicker radiation shielding is made a priority by any mining or construction mission, the threat becomes more manageable. The reason radiation is viewed as a roadblock to space exploration is not due to the impracticality of constructing effective material shielding, but due to the vast expense of launching the shielding itself, with launch costs around $5,000/lb, it just isn’t feasible to launch a ship with several tons of shielding. A construction crew could utilize in situ materials to construct far more effective shielding than it would ever be cost effective to launch from Earth.

A concept design of an actively shielded space craft utilizing high temperature superconductors (Credits: NASA).

Finally, a more advanced form of radiation shielding could provide the perfect defense against both cosmic rays and solar radiation: electromagnetic shielding. Large superconducting magnets could, in theory, be attached to smaller colonies and project a powerful magnetic blanket over the exterior of the habitat, warding off a significant amount of radiation. This, combined with a layer of water or some other material shielding, would protect against almost any imagined assault by radiation. Active Shielding is currently being explored by many groups, such as NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, but, as Shayne Westover of the Johnson Space Center puts it – “The concept of shielding astronauts with magnetic fields has been studied for over 40 years, and it remains an intractable engineering problem. [But] superconducting magnet technology has made great strides in the last decade.”

Radiation and Space Colonies

Even with the material shielding and artificially generated magnetic fields, radiation creates a huge risk for any long term human presence in space. Stations and habitats of the future have been designed with this in mind, and have included large amounts of shielding in their engineering. Most design their central living spaces within a layer of rock and dirt, gathered from nearby asteroids or the lunar surface, providing the required 5-10 tons/m2 of mass required to simulate Earth’s protective atmosphere.

A cut away of Kalpana One. Note the central tube where the emergency radiation shelter would be housed (Credits: NASA Ames).

Island Three, one of Gerard O’Neill’s designs, is angled as to ensure solar radiation has to pass through a large, shielded ‘cap’ before it reaches inside the colony, with large shielded mirrors tilted to provide sunlight to the inhabitants. In Kalpana One, a settlement designed by Al Globus of the NSS, colonists can take refuge inside a central swimming pool during extreme solar storms, taking advantage of the added protection provided by the water.

While the prohibitive issue of mass and launch costs stop any Earth-borne space mission from constructing the sorts of extensive radiation shielding discussed above, such restrictions would not apply to a colony or work camp constructed in space. Utilizing asteroids and lunar minerals to construct as much shielding as required to properly protect the workers and colonists is the ultimate construction solution.

Despite all of these options, radiation still poses a threat to humanity’s future in space. Many of the solutions rely on a small established presence in space to begin with, therefore the earliest workers will be taking a large risk in constructing these footholds. The threat of radiation is, however, a threat we can understand and overcome – the technology to do so already exists for the most part, the problem, once again, is financial.

Radiation even provides an additional reason why space colonization is so vital to our efforts as a species. With an established space colony, construction on a truly safe, deep space-faring ship would be trivial compared to building one on Earth. With no concerns for launch costs, the radiation shielding and safety measures would be unconstrained and future exploration of the solar system could be a much safer affair.


[1] Water in this instance would prove a more effective shielding method, as the water can also be used for coolant

[2] For example, high atomic-number materials such as lead works very well against photons, but can produce body-harming X-Rays when interacting with beta particles.

[3] Based on an estimate from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on a manned mission to Mars (Radioactivity in the Environment (vol 7, p 894))



Building a Real Spaceship Enterprise

Getting into space is complicated.  It’s expensive.  It’s risky.  So what’s the average, run-of-the-mill space enthusiast to do?  You know, the type of person who isn’t an actual rocket scientist or astronaut?  Sure you can watch the launches, go to the museums and defend NASA at cocktail parties but that won’t get you or your stuff into space.  If you’re the type of person that longs to go into space, that scribbled rocketships in the margins of your notebooks in school, that watches Firefly and thinks space pirate should be an actual career option, well, have I got the project for you.

The National Space Society is crowdfunding a real spaceship.

Enterprise_In_Space7 logo

This is not a model.  It is the design of a real spacecraft that the National Space Society intends to build, launch and recover.  It will be packed with experiments, one of which could be yours.

Now, some reality checks are in order.  It will only be eight feet long so it won’t carry people, or even one person.  And the NSS needs to raise a whopping $40 million to fund the entire project.  They say they have a number of deep-pocketed corporate sponsors but 40 million is, needless to say, an ambitious fundraising goal.  We shall see.

But they picked a great name: this project is called the Enterprise in Space.  It will be the first (non-fictional) object with the name Enterprise to fly in space.  How cool is that?  We here at This Orbital Life salute the NSS for giving all of us a chance to be involved in the construction of a real spaceship.



Asteroids: Friend or Foe?

by Liam Ginty

Warning sirens blare throughout the station – red lights flash and alert the inhabitants of the incoming danger. Solemn glances are exchanged in the control room, and the view screen fills with the image of a massive chunk of rock, headed directly toward the colony. The smaller rocks hit first; holes are smashed into the glass encasing the habitat, sending a rain of broken glass into the orbital home. The habitat starts to vent its oxygen, just as the asteroid collides with the cylinder. A plume of fire and metal expands where the colony once stood.

Sound familiar? Sci-Fi would have us believe that the inevitable end result of almost any space colony is a fiery explosion brought on by a massive asteroid collision. But how likely is it that a colony would face this sort of destruction, and is there anything that could be done to avoid it? In this article, we take a look at our neighbors in the solar system: Asteroids.

NASA's NEOWISE program in 2011 was used to detect asteroids over 330 feet. Each dot represents an asteroid, with the green dots representing the inner planets. NASA estimates over 19,000 such asteroids in our local area, the image compares NASAs old model of NEO detection with its new, NEOWISE, model (Credits: NASA).
NASA’s NEOWISE program in 2011 was used to detect asteroids over 330 feet. Each dot represents an asteroid, with the green dots representing the inner planets. NASA estimates over 19,000 such asteroids in our local area, the image compares NASAs old model of NEO detection with its new, NEOWISE, model (Credits: NASA).

A sphere of debris surrounds Earth, both the man-made satellites that clutter our skies and the thousands of asteroids and comets that swing close to the Earth. We refer to these as Near Earth Objects (NEOs). NEOs are one of the most useful, valuable assets available to a space colony – they are filled with vast mineral riches, more than enough to fuel a spacefaring civilization for eons. They also constitute a serious threat, not only to any future space colony, but to Earth itself.

There is, unfortunately, very little research done to determine exactly how dangerous the regions of space beyond our atmosphere can be. While NASA operates a series of projects aimed at cataloging NEOs in our close proximity loosely known as ‘Spaceguard’, these are mostly designed to protect the Earth from the threat of a catastrophic asteroid impact. Several experiments and projects have given us some vital information, however. Prime among these are the seismic detectors placed on the Moon by the Apollo missions; these tools were used in the 70s to collect data on moonquakes and other seismic events, including impact events. In his book, The High Frontier, Gerard O’Neill compiled the data from several sources including these devices and concluded:

One finds that in order to be struck by a meteoroid of really large size, one ton, a large ‘Island Three’ [O’Neill’s proposed orbital colony] community would have to wait around a million years. Such a strike should by no means destroy a well-designed habitat, but it would certainly produce a hole and cause local damage.

While one could call O’Neill’s predictions of the colony’s sturdiness optimistic at the least, his examination of the data available to him is relatively sound. He goes on to say that high velocity, high frequency impacts would be a far greater concern, stating, “…there’d be a strike by [a small tennis ball sized meteoroid] once every 3 years.” The reason for the small number of impacts stems from the relative remoteness of the habitat’s potential location: far enough away from Earth and the Moon’s gravity wells that most meteoroids would be swept away by their respective masses.

The Stanford Torus, one of several designs proposed by O'Neill, would house around 10,000 people in its central ring (Credits: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center).
The Stanford Torus, one of several designs proposed by O’Neill, would house around 10,000 people in its central ring (Credits: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center).

Much of the data O’Neill worked with has been supplanted by more up-to-date information. The new data is significantly less optimistic, with smaller impacts happening once every year or so. Although these tennis ball sized impacts still pose a large risk to the colony (jamming the rotation motors, smashing radiation shielding or the solar arrays, even puncturing the habitat itself), the relatively low frequency of these impacts, coupled with compartmentalization and proper safety polices, these risks are manageable. While Hollywood would have us believe even the smallest puncture in the outer shell of a space station will instantly lead to a massive decompression event, the reality is that on a reasonably sized colony, it would take months for the atmosphere to leak out.

Some data suggests that a habitat at L5 would be safer with respect to asteroids than a station orbiting the Earth, considering that the massive gravity wells of the Moon and the Earth pull the vast majority of all debris toward them. Any habitat sufficiently outside of Earth’s orbit will not have to contend with the barrage of man-made debris either. Finally, the development of specialized radar equipment and anti-meteoroid systems could nullify the risk posed by all but the biggest asteroids – and even those would not pose an insurmountable challenge to a well-designed colony.

For those reasons, the construction of a colony in space would by necessity lead to an expansion of our planetary defenses as early industry establishes itself in Earth’s orbit. Space-based sensor arrays would be a requirement on any large colony, and these would collect endless reams of data on asteroids, both big and small. This – combined with the relative ease with which a colony could construct and conduct an asteroid-capture mission, would almost completely negate the risk to our civilization by a large asteroid impact. Currently Earth is a sitting duck with barely a single percent of space funding being put towards a planetary defense system.

While the worst case scenario of a massive asteroid colliding with a colony makes for good TV, the reality of the situation is that we have far more to benefit from these massive rocks than we risk. Asteroids are almost certainly the answer to many of the problems we are currently facing as a civilization. In the near future, much of the resources we rely on for our current level of development will begin to dwindle. This can be offset by advances in technology, recycling, and other measures, but sooner or later, humanity will run out of these materials. Luckily, high above us floats a treasure trove of vast riches, just waiting to be exploited.

Rendition of a possible architecture for capturing an asteroid as proposed under NASA's Asteroid Retrieval Mission (Credits: NASA).
Rendition of a possible architecture for capturing an asteroid as proposed under NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (Credits: NASA).

Even some of the smallest asteroids we observe contain many tons of raw materials, the combined total material mass of even just the closest, most easy to reach NEOs is unfathomable[1], many times more than the Earth’s reserves – take the oft mentioned asteroid 1986 DA, containing over 10 billion tons of iron, a billion tons of nickel as well as ten thousand tons of gold. Colonies in space would allow us to quickly and easily capture and mine these space rocks, providing us with an ample supply of materials not just to fuel the Earth’s constant need for them, but also to expand industry in space. Currently if we want to build a space station, or a solar power plant, or any other large scale project, the materials have to be constructed on Earth and sent into space bit by bit, using an exorbitant delivery system that hamstrings any real meaningful development of this new frontier.

If a single colony were to be established in space, this would become a null point. A structure in space would be able to launch missions to retrieve asteroids with relative ease, bringing the rocks to the colony for processing, or mining them in-situ via relatively traditional mining methods or more advanced methods, such as magnetic rakes or heat treating the rock.

Currently, several groups and corporations have proposed mining operations. Planetary Resources plans to create a fuel depot in space by using water extracted from asteroids, Deep Space Industries aims to begin mining by 2023, and NASA has been investigating several different methods for determining if asteroid mining is profitable. Recently a group of astronomers at Strathclyde have determined a number of asteroids as EROs, easily retrievable objects.

Artists impression of a solar panel array built from asteroid materials. Such arrays could provide unlimited clean energy to the Earth, using microwaves to transmit vast amounts of power from space (Credits: NASA).
Artists impression of a solar panel array built from asteroid materials. Such arrays could provide unlimited clean energy to the Earth, using microwaves to transmit vast amounts of power from space (Credits: NASA).

Many of these plans attract a great deal of skepticism and rightly so: asteroid mining will almost certainly never be a profitable venture when the mission has to overcome Earth’s gravity first. But the establishment of a colony will see the cost of retrieval plummet and provide a place for workers and skilled engineers to live while they process the raw materials of an asteroid into new structures and usable materials.

All of the pie-in-the-sky designs and plans we so often hear about would be completely within the realms of possibility. Large scale solar collectors could be constructed to transmit unlimited solar energy to Earth, sun screens could reduce the effects of climate change on our planet, and even the elusive dream of a Moon base would be easily within our grasp.

Asteroids are scary. They are responsible for at least one mass extinction event on our world and may be responsible for thousands of deaths and injuries since – we all remember the shocking images and damage caused by the small meteor strike in Russia in 2013. While it is easy for us to cower from these seemingly unstoppable juggernauts, humanity has a history of turning its adversaries into allies and our threats into opportunities. Asteroids are just another one of these tamable beasts, waiting for the first brave pioneers to make use of their vast wealth.

[1] Although many NEOs are not metallic, asteroids with other compositions have a variety of uses.


What if Launch Costs Plummet?

Last summer, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company is planning for a reusable Falcon 9 to cost no more than $7 million to launch.  If SpaceX achieves that goal (which looks likely to occur), it will provide the lowest cost launches in history.  See the table below:

Max payload to Orbit
Cost per lb kg lbs Cost per launch
Atlas V 401 (EELV) $2,392 18810 41382 $98 Million
Falcon 9 v1.1 $2,115 13150 28930 $61 Million
Falcon 9-R $242 13150 28930 $7 Million

Sources: Breaking Defense, SpaceX, Wikipedia

So what does that really mean?  We crunched the numbers here at This Orbital Life.  Today it would cost about $2.2 billion to boost something the size of the ISS into orbit.  For the same amount of money (but using the Falcon 9-R) we could boost ten times the mass into orbit.  So, instead of a station that supports only six astronauts, we could put enough mass in orbit to support sixty.

With lower launch costs, bigger infrastructure in space is possible.

We could use that mega-sized space station as a staging ground and a construction yard for Mars missions.  Lots of them.  Current plans call for NASA to spend almost $2 billion just to launch the fuel the spacecraft will need to go to Mars.  That doesn’t count the actual spacecraft itself.  For that $2 billion and, again, at $242 per pound, we could launch four complete missions to Mars.  Four full missions for the price of just the fuel for one mission.

Falcon 9-R could boost ten times the amount of materiel into orbit for the same price we are paying today.

For those who prefer tables, maybe this will help:

Launch costs
Object Mass (lbs, est.) delivered to orbit NASA rocket ($5,200/lb) Atlas V 401 ($2,392/lb) Falcon 9-R ($242/lb)
ISS 921,800 $4.79 Billion $2.2 Billion $0.22 Billion
Nautilus-X 792,000 $4.11 Billion $1.89 Billion $0.19 Billion
Mars mission 1,867,140 $9.71 Billion $4.47 Billion $0.45 Billion


So I know that’s a lot of numbers.  But what it shows is that if the Falcon 9-R is successful we could be on the verge of an explosion of activity in orbital space.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it could enable the fulfillment of lots of long-held space dreams.  Things like zero gravity resorts, vacations to the Moon, settlements on Mars, asteroid mining and lots of exciting scientific discoveries and engineering breakthroughs.

The Falcon 9-R is already being tested.  We here at This Orbital Life believe it could become commercially available within the next five years.  Once proven, it won’t take long for the impacts to be felt.  Strap yourself in, the future is coming fast!


How to Build an Orbital Economy to Support Mars Exploration

A previous post proposed a new national space policy, specifically regarding human spaceflight.   A key component of the new policy will be public-private partnerships to solidify and expand the permanent human presence in Earth orbit, and thus lay the groundwork for a mission to Mars.  This post will describe three public-private partnerships that will help to do just that.  They are ‘Commercial Station’, ‘Commercial Resources’ and ‘Commercial Transport.’

Commercial Station

Luckily, humanity already has a permanent foothold in space in the form of the International Space Station.  At any one time there are six human beings living and working in space aboard  ISS, or simply ‘Station,’ as it is called.  Station is a incredible feat of engineering and international cooperation.  It took decades to design and build and it rivals the Apollo program as humanity’s greatest achievement in space.

Unfortunately, it’s deteriorating rapidly and will have to be replaced no later than 2028.  It cost over $100 billion to build and billions more per year to operate.  We must find a cheaper solution if we are to continue the research necessary to push on to Mars.

Happily, as a result of the experience gained with ISS, the private sector is in a position to provide commercial space stations.  NASA does not have to spend $100 billion and ten years to build a whole new station.  Instead, by 2028 it will be possible to rent space in a private space station, just like one can rent space in an office building on Earth today.

NASA's new landlords
Rather than building their own station, NASA could rent space from commercial space station operators.

But how to develop the market and ultimately choose a landlord?  Well, why not have a competition?  The private sector makes a compelling case.  For instance, Bigelow Aerospace, a premier commercial space station operator that has already flown station hardware, is offering a station equivalent in size to the ISS for $1.35 billion per year.  For comparison NASA requested over $3 billion for Station operations in fiscal year 2015.  However, due to design efficiencies, Bigelow’s station could accommodate at least twice as many astronauts.

For instance, one private space station offers twice as much capacity for half the price of the NASA station.

So how might the aforementioned competition work? It would be very simple.  NASA could issue a request for proposals (RFP) for commercial operators to provide accommodations for government astronauts to live and work on a privately-operated space station.  NASA could offer, say, $1.35 billion per year for six astronauts to occupy 900 cubic meters (the volume of the current space station).  The respondents to the RFP would work with NASA to meet the government’s specific criteria before any contracts were signed.  Over time with subsequent proposals and more competition, it is likely that the price might fall even further.  Additionally, other space agencies and commercial operators, like space tourism companies, would join NASA as tenants in the burgeoning commercial space station industry.

Of course, this new generation of space station, as well as any eventual mission to Mars, will need supplies.  Things like fuel, oxygen, water and radiation shielding.  That brings us to the next partnership that will enable the new national space policy:

Commercial Resources

The ten or twenty people living in space once ‘Commercial Station’ is up and running will require relatively small amounts of supplies to survive.  Those supplies will probably be brought up from Earth on rockets.

However, getting to Mars is a completely different story.  One trip to the Red Planet will require 428 tons of fuel.  For comparison, the ISS (the biggest thing ever to be put in space) masses about 419 tons.  So we’re talking a lot of fuel.  To get it all into orbit, NASA is planning to spend billions of dollars.

For the Mars missions, NASA will spend a lot of money just to get rocket fuel into orbit.
For the Mars missions, NASA will spend a lot of money just to get rocket fuel into orbit.

But making rocket fuel is a relatively simple process, even in space.  And the raw materials are up there too, in the form of asteroids just floating around.  Perhaps the private sector could deliver propellant to NASA and figure out a way to do it cheaper than sending it all up from Earth?

Theoretically, if NASA used the cheapest rocket to launch 428 tons into orbit (which they won’t), it would cost $1.07 billion.   Instead, NASA could offer to purchase the equivalent amount of fuel for $1 billion, assuming it was delivered where they needed it (low earth orbit) and in a usable form.   And that’s only for one mission; they could offer the same deal for every other mission to Mars.  This would save the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars and provide a billion incentives for the private sector to set up a sustainable rocket fuel industry in space.

Oh and by the way, the same stuff that makes rocket fuel also makes great drinks, breathing air and radiation shielding: it’s good ol’ water ice.  So our Commercial Resources partnership not only provides fuel for the mission to Mars cheaper than NASA could do it, but it also establishes a supply chain in space for cheap oxygen, water and shielding.

Commercial Transport

Going to Mars will require humans to test equipment and techniques on the Moon which in turn will require an intermittent base on the lunar surface.   But in order to properly establish and supply a base, we need a means to get to and from said base.   In short, what we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.

What we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.

In 2004, NASA estimated it would cost $63.8 billion to return humans to the moon once.  Just once.   But getting something the size of the original moon lander into orbit today would only cost about $70 million (using the cheap rockets referenced above).  To get it all the way to lunar orbit would require additional fuel and a booster spacecraft costing about another $500 million.  So, rounding up, let’s say  it will cost $600 million, one way to the Moon.  That’s for a craft that holds two astronauts and a few tons of cargo.  Of course our estimate doesn’t count development costs.  But, come on, we’ve done this before.  Will it really cost NASA $63.2 billion to reinvent the wheel?

If so, it’s an opportunity for another partnership.  Rather than spending all that money on something it’s already done, NASA could instead issue another request for proposals indicating it wants to purchase, say, ten round trip flights to the Moon for $12 billion (assuming a one-way trip costs $600 million).  There could be two trips a year (every six months) so the budgetary impact would be $1.2 billion per year for ten years.  This would take astronauts from the Earth’s surface to low lunar orbit.  Then they would use the NASA lander to finish the trip and go down to the NASA base on the lunar surface to perform their research and experiments.  $1.2 billion per year may sound like a lot but it sure beats $63 billion plus.  Also, the Commercial Transport provider will have other customers: there are lots of other firms with plans to go to the Moon for various reasons.  And they all need a ride to get there.

Lots of companies want to go to the Moon: customers for Commercial Transport besides NASA.
Lots of companies want to go to the Moon: customers for Commercial Transport besides NASA.

Towards An Orbital Economy

A summary of the costs so far, compared to space station spending:

$ billions per year deliverable for the year
Commercial Station 1.35 12-astronaut capacity space station
Commercial Resources 1.00 428 tons of LH2/LOX in low earth orbit
Commercial Transport 1.20 2 round trips between Earth and low lunar orbit
Total 3.55
FY2016 NASA Budget Request for
ISS Operations
3.13 6-astronaut capacity space station

The total cost of these proposals total is $3.55 billion per year.  Compared to $3.13 billion for ISS operations in 2016.

But let’s set the costs aside for a moment.  Stepping back, one can see that these plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.  Over the long term, Commercial Transport could provide transportation services to private entities wishing to get out of low earth orbit and establish stations, mining facilities or workshops in other areas of the orbital neighborhood.  Commercial Resources will provide the fuel and supplies for those entities and Commercial Station will provide the housing.

These plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.

And by acting as an anchor tenant in the beginning stages NASA will not only enable Mars exploration, but it will also kick-start the creation of an enduring orbital economy.

To comment, please click the link at the beginning of the article.



A National Space Policy Proposal

With the U.S. Presidential election now underway, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to improve our national space policy.  The existing space policy covers a lot of ground in various areas.   This post will focus on the sexy stuff: civilian human space flight.  In other words, how to get astronauts into space and figuring out what they should do once they’re up there.

The next President should instruct NASA to pursue three goals in sequence: first, expand the permanent human presence in orbit. Second, establish an intermittent presence on the Moon.  Third, a ‘sprint’ to Mars.

Three goals: humans in orbit, an outpost on the Moon, and a sprint to Mars (and back).

Why three goals?  The first two steps are needed to properly achieve the third.  Sending humans to Mars is a good and worthy goal.  Learning once and for all whether or not life evolved on a separate planet could change our species.  Furthermore, learning if Mars can once again support life (like, say, human life!) will change the world again.  Also, a mission to Mars is an inspiring event, especially if it is an international collaboration, as we here at TOL think it ought to be.

But current policy makes a human to Mars mission unlikely.  It’s too expensive, too bureaucratic and it won’t happen for decades (assuming Congress funds it all).  Worse, once it’s done, there will be little infrastructure left in space to do it again.  In other words, the current strategy will spend tens of billions of dollars to get flags and footprints on Mars.  After that, all the rockets and technology developed for the project will be put into mothballs.  It’s happened before and we’re on the path to make the same mistake again.

Saturn V Rocket Booster on Display at NASA JSC
Instead of using them to go on to Mars or establish a permanent human presence in space, the last Moon rockets became very expensive lawn ornaments.

The alternative policy proposed here will provide a more enduring human presence in space.  A key component of the strategy is to engage the private sector to lower costs and allow NASA to focus on exploration versus transportation.  First, the U.S. government should establish a public-private partnership to replace the International Space Station with a commercial venture.  Rather than spending billions to build a new space station (once the current one is retired in 2028), the U.S. government can rent space from a private space station operator to perform experiments related to advancing technology needed to go to Mars.  Similar public-private ventures can be used to supply the space station with fuel, water and oxygen derived from asteroids and comets.  A partnership already exists to get astronauts into orbit on private spacecraft.  A similar one should be established to get astronauts to lunar orbit.

It would be foolish to go all the way to Mars before testing how certain machines operate in a dusty, low-gravity environment.  Do it on the Moon first.

Once in lunar orbit, NASA should establish intermittent missions down to the lunar surface.  Such missions are needed to test techniques and processes that might be used on Mars. It would be foolish to go all the way to Mars before testing how certain machines operate in a dusty, low-gravity environment.  Do it on the moon first before going all the way to Mars.  This lunar outpost could be partially built and operated by another public-private partnership, like the ones described above.

What does this get us? A network of privately-managed space stations, fuel depots and workshops in orbit.   A small but permanent lunar outpost.  NASA will be a prime tenant for these facilities but by no means the only one: space tourism and research facilities will also be big players in this new commercial economy in space.

Private-sector activity in space will make a Mars mission easier, safer and more likely to succeed.

Just as important: kick-starting a commercial human presence in space via competitively awarded partnerships will make a Mars mission easier, safer and more likely to succeed.  Astronauts going to Mars can take advantage of the fuel and supply depots in orbit and, if necessary, be that much easier to rescue should something go wrong.

Once this network is up and running, NASA will be ready for it’s ‘sprint’ to Mars.  Using advanced propulsion technology developed in orbit, an international crew of astronauts will fly to Mars in three months or less, spend a week or so on the surface, and then scoot back to the relative safety of Earth orbit.  Using a combination of fast engines and the infrastructure provided by the new orbital economy, there should be no need for a years-long journey to Mars costing tens of billions of dollars (as is currently planned).

What might all this cost?  Unfortunately, it won’t cost less than the current policy.  In fact, it will probably cost more.  But not that much more due to the extensive use of competitively-bid private sector partnerships.  Sounds too good to be true?  We’re already doing it.

The private sector has proven it can deliver more services for the same amount of funding, or less.
The private sector has proven it can deliver more services for the same amount of funding, or less.

Furthermore, it delivers not just Mars but also a moon base and an enduring human presence in Earth orbit.  Basically, three for (almost) the price of one.

The private sector has proven itself ready and willing to join NASA in exploring the universe.  The next President should instruct NASA to engage these partners to build an enduring, self-sustaining commercial human presence in space, a lunar outpost and finally fulfill humanity’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.

To comment, please use the link at the top of the post.



Living in Space: an Introduction

by Liam Ginty

History is full of explorers and if we think about these noble pioneers, our minds are filled with fantastical images: massive Spanish galleons boldly cutting through the waves of the Atlantic, majestic explorers cresting a mountain top to look upon a fruitful and fertile land below them. We, as humans, revere those who went before us, those brave men and women who looked to the distance and left the comfort of their homes for the wild unknown.

The truth is, behind this near-mythical depiction, many of our ancestral explorers were simply people looking for a home; somewhere to plant their feet where food and resources were slightly more plentiful than where they came from. Sometimes explorers and settlers have been profit driven; the great colonization of the Americas was pushed by a great many things: gold, whaling, spices.

Orbital colonization is the next step in humanity’s growing need to expand beyond what we call home and seek out greener pastures. The Start Here series seeks to show the benefits, dangers, safety aspects and concerns of orbital colonization.  We begin with an introduction to space settlements, and pose the question: what stands between us and a home in the stars?

The Stanford Torus, one of several designs proposed by O'Neill, would house around 10,000 people in its central ring (Credits: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center).

Dreaming of Space Life

Humankind has dreamed of living amongst the stars since we first looked up to them, but the concept was first discussed seriously in the 1970s with the formation of the Space Studies Institute (SSI) and Professor Gerard K O’Neill’s[1] book, The High Frontier. In the book, O’Neill outlined a roadmap for the future of the US Space program, following the Apollo missions.

Beginning with the use of small habitats constructed from space debris, O’Neill’s plan called for a slowly expanding permanent human presence in orbit: developing satellites, refining ores mined from near Earth asteroids and preforming a variety of scientific endeavors. These small communities would eventually expand into larger, more stable habitats. Several of these designs were proposed, but all are vastly different from the space stations we build now. These designs called for construction on a massive scale, with some stations requiring upwards of 10 million tons[2] of material. Space construction on such a scale is impossible using current methods since many of the designs relied on a large scale mining operation to construct them in-situ.

O’Neill’s stations would be used for a variety of purposes, mostly aimed at facilitating the industrialization of space, particularly near-Earth orbits. The cost to build and launch a satellite from an orbital colony would be minuscule in comparison to current prices for Earth-based launches, and would allow the development of large-scale projects, such as massive solar collectors, planetary defenses, and space sunshades. Orbital colonies would also rapidly increase humanity’s abilities to expand further into our solar system, by providing a base from which missions could supply themselves: the need to launch with months of heavy fuel, food, water, air and vital equipment would be rendered void.

Why Leave Earth?

An orbital colony would also provide easy access to the near Earth objects (NEOs) that surround the Earth. These asteroids contain near limitless[3] minerals useful for almost any purpose imaginable. With the ability to cheaply mine these asteroids, the scarcity of such resources on Earth would be abated.

The benefits are not all financial or technological – many saw these habitats as a potential mechanism for enabling humanity’s immortality. With a self-sustained orbital colony able to produce its own food, water, and oxygen, a calamity that could initially wipe out the Earth won’t destroy all of humanity.

The excitement behind these stations eventually subsided along with the US’s interest in orbital expansion[4]. Without a major nation or private interest in space colonization, public interest dwindled. Efforts by a variety of groups such as the L5 Society and the National Space Institute maintained the concept as a viable path of space development and campaigned for the abolition of the Moon Treaty, amongst other projects seeking to maintain the viability of space colonization. Eventually, several of O’Neill’s ideas were shown to be far too expensive to be feasible for our means[5] and the dream of orbital colonization settled down for a time.

Now, private companies and nations are taking another look at orbital colonies. Companies such as SpaceX are producing rockets with a lower launch cost than ever before. Engineering and biological advances and understanding have made habitats more viable than ever and more nations have spaceflight capability than ever before. The time would seem ripe to revisit the viability of orbital colonies, and many are.

Damage to the Zarya module aboard the ISS thought to be caused by a micrometeoroid weighing less than a gram (Credits: NASA).

Danger in Space

However, despite the renewed interest, there are still many dangers to orbital colonization. Without the powerful defenses of the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, colonies are exposed to upwards of 100 times the amount of radiation as we are exposed to on Earth. Therefore, colonies would have to be designed with large-scale anti-radiation solutions, and biological methods of radiation protection may be necessary.

Another long term issue is the matter of asteroids and micrometeoroid impacts. While the image of an immense asteroid smashing a station apart is an astronomically unlikely event, thousands of smaller impacts will constantly erode the outer surface of any space station. Current space stations and launch craft use a variety of methods to defend themselves from the constant sandblasting of outer space, but a permanent colony would require a much more robust solution to the problem.

Already, astronauts aboard the ISS are experimenting with growing plants and food in space. The LADA experiment has produced small amounts of fresh food in zero-gravity. Pictured here, the European Modular Cultivation System (Credits: NASA).

Finally, there is the issue of basic human needs. A colony as envisioned by O’Neill and other scientists would need to be capable of sustaining thousands of lives, providing food, water, and oxygen for everyone on-board, as well as power, entertainment, and other requirements of modern life. All of this would require farms, power generators, and the means of refining raw asteroid or lunar materials into water, oxygen, fertilizer and building materials.

In addition, there are other safety concerns: microgravity, space sickness, and any number of unforeseen biological issues. The mechanical aspects also have problems: heat management and manufacturing, as well as the immediate problems of launch costs.

Orbital Colonies: Is There a Future?

With so many complications, it’s easy to see why the attempts to settle the solar system failed in the 1970s. At that time, many of the issues discussed here were not understood or even discovered yet, and most solutions to the known problems only increased the already massive cost of the undertaking. However, the greatest challenge facing human colonization of space is not radiation or even asteroids: it’s money. As Gary Hudson, current president of the SSI puts it:

Naturally, the greatest roadblock to realization of space settlements of the O’Neill type is the money required to execute the vision. Tritely, ‘…no bucks, no Buck Rogers.’  There are technological challenges to be sure, yet they would be overcome with sufficient financial resources.

In this series, we will examine the problems and safety concerns of space colonization and their solutions. We will look at the trials, the challenges, and the rewards of human expansion into space and discuss how humanity might live in the high frontier.

[1] O’Neill was not the first to envision mankind’s expansion into space; Dandridge M. Cole and T.A. Heppenheimer both published works on the concept.

[2] Some of the larger habitats, such as Island Three, would require several more magnitudes of material.

[3] 3554 Amun, a small M-Class asteroid contains more gold than has ever been mined on Earth, and its raw metals are valued at around $20 trillion dollars.

[4] While there had been a small amount of interest from soviet scientists, the push for space settlement was primarily a US based one, albeit with many of the various advocacy groups being made up of a multinational membership.

[5] Freeman Dyson, O’Neill’s successor in the SSI, spoke about how the proposed road maps were almost 300 times more expensive than originally thought.

This article was first released in Space Safety Magazine in 2014.

Probably gonna happen

Previous posts asked how ‘the age of space settlement’ might affect people on Earth. Specifically, is it worth the cost?  We started to answer that by describing the effects that are guaranteed to occur when giant space cities orbit the Earth.  This post will continue the discussion by describing things are likely to happen (but not guaranteed) once space settlement really gets going.

Let’s start with drugs. For example: pharmaceuticals research in the zero-gravity environment of space could result in advanced medicines and super-cures for numerous diseases.  Separately, asteroid mining could cause the price of rare minerals like platinum to plummet as new sources derived from space enter the marketplace.  As a result of this price drop, numerous advanced technologies – like electric car batteries, wind turbines and mobile phones – will become cheaper and more effective.  And more electric cars and renewable energy will reduce fossil fuel use with resulting environmental and geopolitical benefits.

Cheap platinum derived from space mining will result in cheaper and more effective wind turbines on Earth.


Additionally, the age of space settlement will eliminate space debris and is very likely to eliminate the threat of asteroid strikes and hazardous space weather.  It is fair to assume that communities in space will use whatever means necessary to protect themselves from the threats inherent in their environment, both manmade and natural. Thus, space settlers can be expected to clean up and prevent space debris: not only because debris can harm their structures but also because it is a valuable source of refined material ready for recycling and reuse.  Similar logic can be applied to asteroid strikes: space settlers will see asteroids not as threats but as a source of raw materials.  They will closely scan the skies in order to detect and capture asteroids.  In the course of these scans, rocks that threaten the Earth will be identified and either re-routed or captured and refined into usable materials.  Also, space settlements will keep a close eye on the Sun in order to prepare for and avoid solar flares and other hazardous space weather events that might affect on-orbit operations.  The electric and communications grid on Earth will benefit from these space weather forecasts as well.

Finally, space settlements will develop all sorts of new technology that will be applicable to life on Earth.  For instance, imagine a house that generates all its own power, water and heat, and also recycles all of its own waste.  No more power outages, no more water and sewer bills and no more taking out the trash. The technologies developed in space settlements could be used to build such a house.

If you think that’s cool, in the next post we’ll discuss some really outrageous things that space settlement will make possible. Stay tuned!

Definitely gonna happen

Happy new year! One of my resolutions is to post at least once a week.  So here goes. Wish me luck.

If people start to live, work, play and have families in space – in other words, actually settle space instead of just floating around up there – there will be a bunch of things that will definitely happen back here on Earth.

Obviously, there will be a dramatic improvement in the capability of communications satellites.  With workshops and technicians able to manufacture and maintain them in orbit, satellites will become bigger and more powerful.  As a result, back on Earth the cost of satellite communication will plummet.  More people will be able to talk, text and videochat with one another for less money than ever before.  Similarly, earth-observation satellites will proliferate and their capabilities will improve resulting in more precise weather forecasting, better agriculture and fewer impacts from natural disasters.  So, better Internet, more food, and fewer rain delays.

When people live in space, these guys won’t have to sit in the rain at baseball games anymore.

On the darker side, improvements in satellite performance will also extend to surveillance.  An orbital industrial base will allow nation states to construct and maintain more powerful spy satellites.  Pervasive surveillance of any spot on the globe will become easy and inexpensive, with a commensurate erosion of privacy and secrecy.  Surveillance ‘birds’ may become so cheap to build and operate that cities will use them to monitor their street grids twenty-four hours a day and issue traffic citations based on orbital imagery and video.  One can quickly get carried away imagining far darker scenarios of rogue nations using pervasive surveillance to oppress their own populations and terrorise others.

But enough of that scary stuff.

There will be other less technologically-inclined impacts that are almost certain to occur once the age of space settlement begins: those that will happen in the cultural arena.  The unique architecture of space settlements and the peculiarities of the space environment – like zero-gravity – will provide great fodder for media, sports and art. Television shows and movies produced in orbit will become a part of our cultural landscape.  Entirely new sports will be created to take advantage of the zero-gravity environment.  Orbital art depicting the globe and the cosmos will proliferate.  Anthropologists and sociologists will study the new communities of space and apply their findings to Earth.  In short, space settlement – the act of literally building new worlds – is almost certain to excite the minds of many creative individuals and result in new cultural trends and phenomena.

Next post: things that will probably happen once people are living in space.

Space Station for Rent

The International Space Station, also known as the ISS, will be retired in 2028.  By that time the oldest parts of the station will be thirty years old and dangerously deteriorated in the harsh environment of space.  Having a space station is essential to continue research for the upcoming asteroid mission and an eventual Mars landing.  But all of those things won’t get done before the ISS falls apart in 2028.  So if we’re going to Mars, we need a replacement for the ISS.

So, no problem, you say. Let’s just build another ISS! Well the first one cost about $100 billion and had the Space Shuttle to help build it.  We don’t have the Space Shuttle anymore and, while we learned a lot from ISS, no one really wants to spend $100 billion doing something we’ve already done. Especially if we’d rather spend most of our time and money getting to Mars.

Luckily, there is an alternative.  When the Space Shuttle was cancelled, the U.S. still needed a way to get astronauts and their stuff to and from the space station.  Rather than building a new Space Shuttle (or relying entirely on Russian rockets), NASA asked the private sector to find a solution. Rather than spending a ton of time and money doing something they’ve already done (build a rocket), they outsourced the project to the commercial sector.  They called it Commercial Cargo and Crew.

And it worked! Cargo is now regularly delivered to the International Space Station on rockets that were developed entirely by the private sector. NASA pays only for the transportation services, not the maintenance costs.  It’s sort of like a trucking company, but in space.  Next year private companies will begin testing crewed capsules in order to send astronauts up to the station.  All this costs way less than the Space Shuttle ever did.

So why not apply the same method to replacing the space station? There are a handful of companies who already have the capability to build commercial space stations.  NASA should work with these firms now to define its needs and, if met, commit the funds currently used for ISS maintenance (over $3 billion in 2015) to pay for renting out space in the new commercial stations.

NASA's new landlords
Mr. Roper they ain’t…

In fact, if ‘Commercial Station’ is as successful as Commercial Cargo and Crew were, there should be significant funding left over to transfer to the primary mission of NASA: getting astronauts on Mars.  It will do this while continuing to provide a sustainable human outpost to support that mission.

Just as important, it will show that commercial vendors can operate safely and profitably in orbit.  It will open space for other commercial ventures like space tourism, manufacturing, research and media.  By promoting Commercial Station, NASA could jumpstart the orbital economy.

Click on the title of the post to comment.


UPDATED: In defense of the Asteroid Redirect Mission

UPDATE: NASA selected Option B for the Asteroid Redirect Mission: plucking a <4 meter diameter boulder from a larger asteroid.  While this is not TOL’s preference, NASA makes a good argument for their choice.  ARM will still test key asteroid defense mechanisms (gravity tractor) and big-ol’ solar electric propulsion equipment.  Most exciting: this mission will also test technology that might be useful for asteroid mining someday.  Cross your fingers, let’s hope this one gets done!

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) does not have strong support.  Several prestigious groups, such as the NASA Advisory Council and the National Research Council, have questioned the value of the mission and argued that the money spent on ARM could be better spent elsewhere.  It’s not good when a  phrase like “dead-end” is most often associated with a proposal.

Also, yesterday, NASA announced it is delaying a decision on how it will execute the ARM.  It will either snag a smallish boulder off a larger asteroid or just bag an entire asteroid with a diameter of about 10 meters.   In either case the asteroidal material will be transported to lunar orbit where it will wait for astronauts to come and inspect it.

So it’s either snag and scoot or bag and drag.

I prefer the latter option because it will best advance the cause of space industrialization.  Learning how to identify, approach, corral and transport whole asteroids (even small ones) and then transport that asteroid to a stable ‘storage’ orbit will be incredibly valuable for space manufacturing.  Asteroids are raw materials, they will supply the space factories of tomorrow.  ARM will test how to collect those raw materials and stockpile them in a convenient place.

So, This Orbital Life votes on Option A for the Asteroid Redirect Mission!

Calculating the ROI of an asteroid mission

By now, regular readers of this blog know that the Dragon Flyer will be the first privately-financed deep space mission.  It will return an intact, pristine asteroid to Earth. Not only is this something that the scientific community wants, but Dragon Flyer will do it better than previous missions, and at a lower cost.

The Dragon Flyer is also a good investment providing more than a 30% return on capital. This assumes a <$250 million total mission cost and a $700 million revenue event (i.e. when the customer pays for the asteroid once it is delivered). The investment time horizon is four years.

The Dragon Flyer will provide a 30% return on capital for a forward-thinking aerospace corporation.

A 30% return is probably too low to attract venture capitalists. However, it is high enough to attract investment from mining, aerospace or utility corporations. See the chart below:

Type of Investor Internal Rate of Return Expected by Investor Total Paid to Investor over Four Year Time Horizon Profit Realized By The Dragon Flyer*
Free money 0% $0 $456,300,000
Kind venture capitalist 41% $719,534,390.36 -$263,234,390
Realistic venture capitalist >100% $3,655,500,000.00 -$3,199,200,000
Commercial gold mine ~30% $452,331,570.00 $3,968,430
Aerospace project e.g. Airbus 380 <19% $245,001,165.48 $211,298,835
New nuclear power plant <17% $212,966,313.08 $243,333,68
*For the purposes of this chart, the investor’s IRR is essentially the “interest rate” at which the venture borrows money from the investor i.e. no additional fees or costs are included in the borrowing costs.

The Dragon Flyer will provide a rate of return higher than recent aerospace projects like the Airbus 380 and will require a far lower capital outlay. In conclusion, the Dragon Flyer is an attractive project for a forward-thinking, innovative aerospace corporation.

To read more about the investment potential of the Dragon Flyer, download the full paper here for free.

A cost-effective asteroid mission

By 2014 various national governments will have launched six sample return missions to asteroids or comets. This marathon of sample return missions began in 1999 with the American Genesis mission which returned miniscule samples of solar wind. This cavalcade will conclude with the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission which launched in 2014.  In between those missions are Stardust, Hayabusa, Fobos-Grunt and OSIRIS-REx.  All of these missions were designed to return a total of less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal or cometary material back to Earth for analysis.


What did that 7 kilograms of material cost? In other words, what did the national governments of Japan, Russia and the United States spend on those six missions? Over $1.9 billion dollars.

The Dragon Flyer, on the other hand, will cost much less. It is proposed that the payload (i.e. the captured asteroid) be sold to a national government or space agency like NASA or the ESA. The target price for 3000 kilograms of pristine asteroidal material:   $700 million.

This is $300 million less than what NASA will pay for the OSIRIS-REx return mission which will return only 2.1 kilograms of asteroidal material.

Furthermore, it is a risk-free expenditure for whatever entity decides to purchase the asteroid. Should NASA agree to purchase the asteroid, it will not have to spend one penny “up front.” The risk of the venture will be borne by the private backers and NASA will only have to pay once the asteroid has been safely returned to Earth. Contrast this with the recent Fobos-Grunt sample return mission – the Russian government expended over $160 million on a space probe that failed to leave low Earth orbit due to a glitch. That is $160 million lost. However, should NASA agree to purchase the Dragon Flyer’s payload and should it subsequently fail, NASA will not have lost a dime (except the opportunity costs associated with the funding – a negligible penalty). Instead, the backers of the mission will have lost money, and NASA will be free to re-obligate that $700 million to other projects.

But what if the Dragon Flyer is a success? What will the mission backers gain? This will be discussed in the next post.

Click here and fill out the form to read the full report.

Quality AND quantity: Dragon Flyer asteroid return mission

Dragon Flyer will not only return asteroidal material of a higher quality than all other previous space probes, but it will also return more of it. A lot more.

Between 1999 and 2014, national governments will have commissioned six asteroid or comet sample return missions. They will have returned to Earth, in total, less than seven kilograms of material.

Dragon Flyer, on the other hand, will return up to 3000 kilograms of asteroidal material. This is more than 400 times greater than what all other asteroid and comet sample missions will return between 1999 and 2014. This is also more than seven times the amount of lunar material returned by the Apollo missions.


In the next post I will begin discussing total project costs. This will show that despite returning more material, Dragon Flyer will do so at a much lower cost than comparable missions.

Remember, you can download the entire paper here, for free.

Why capture an asteroid?

Returning an intact asteroid to Earth will provide benefits to both the space development community as well as to the greater scientific community.

Astronomers in particular attach great value to the idea of studying an intact asteroid. Asteroids are usually billions of years old and are considered time capsules that can provide details about how the solar system formed. However, all asteroid or comet samples currently available for study are less-than-ideal. Most samples are derived from asteroids that have crashed to Earth  (meteorites) and thus have been deformed and melted by their fiery path through the atmosphere. As for samples collected by robotic probes in space, they are usually miniscule in size and, as such, do not provide the full story of the asteroid being sampled. In fact, to date, less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal and cometary material has been, or is planned to be, collected in space by robotic probes.

Numerous astronomers have indicated their desire to study a large, pristine, intact asteroid. But perhaps Jeremie Vauballion, of the Paris Observatory, said it best:

“When found, such an asteroid will immediately raise the question whether or not we should go, and I’m ready to bet that many astronomers will argue that we definitely have to go!” Vaubaillon said in an email [to Space.com]. “The reason is simple: What astronomers would not want to have a full and intact (unaltered by any physical process) piece of space rock? [emphasis added] Meteorites are all altered because they go through our atmosphere. The only piece of asteroid we have comes from the Japanese Hayabusa mission (a few grams at the very most). The comet grains the Stardust mission got back from comet Wild 2 were all altered.”

Benefits to the space development community should be obvious: asteroids represent a rich source of raw materials for future space communities. They are numerous, easier to access than other raw material sources (like the Moon), and small enough to exploit with relatively little equipment. Dragon Flyer will be the first step in learning how to manipulate and capture what could be a source of raw materials for future space communities.

The full paper has significantly more information from the scientific community about their desire to study an intact asteroid.

Introducing: The Dragon Flyer


The Dragon Flyer will be the first privately-financed deep-space mission. It will capture an entire asteroid and return it to Earth, intact, for analysis. The following set of posts will describe how this can be done safely and profitably.
However, if you don’t want to wait for me to post, you can download the entire paper here, for free.

Doing a Mars mission the Right Way

While doing some research for an article about the Asteroid Redirect Mission I made a shocking discovery.  It appears that NASA’s strategic goals as well as the U.S. National Space Policy do not include any mention of anything close to space settlement.  Neither do any of the President’s major speeches on space.  Or if they do, I can’t find them anywhere.

Let me repeat:

the U.S. government has no strategic direction for a permanent, self-sustaining human presence in space.  

 This is despite spending upwards of $60 billion per year on both civil and national defense space programs.  What the hell are we getting for all that money?  Yes, things like GPS are important, but what are we working towards in the long run?  Spy satellites, vaporware asteroid missions and “retaining space professionals?”

Is it me or is that just freaking crazy?

Human space exploration has a long-term goal of landing on Mars. Look, it’s time to face facts.  It pains me to say it but a government-funded Mars mission will not occur in our lifetimes.   There’s too little funding, too little public interest and no geopolitical rationale for such an endeavor.   There won’t be another space race.   The Chinese boogeyman will not land on Mars any time soon due to slowing economic growth and a bleak demographic picture in China.  Despite these facts, our space policy continues to cling to the fiction of shooting for Mars.   It’s not going to happen!

Part of the problem is that the American space community thinks the Apollo model can be applied to a Mars mission.  It cannot: Mars is too far and too complex.  Going there will be too expensive (especially using the centralized top-down Apollo model) to only spend a few days or weeks on the surface and then come back.  Every few years a President recommits the U.S. to going to Mars and then the whole thing falls apart because of price concerns.  By trying to ‘do Mars’ the way we ‘did Apollo’ we keep tripping up because it’s just too expensive.

So should we give up on Mars?  Absolutely not!!

The United States should continue to plan to explore the Red Planet.  But if we go there, we should go to stay.  And once we decide to do that, we will need a new strategy.  Settling Mars will require extensive diplomatic and legal preparations; it will almost certainly have to be an international mission.  This will be a major benefit: look at how well international cooperation has helped to sustain the International Space Station for over 20 years.  And, of course, there will need to be technical preparations.  Settling Mars will be easier if there is a robust, self-sustaining industrial base in orbit stretching from Earth to the Moon and on to the Martian system.

In short, going to Mars the right way will require a self-supporting human community in cislunar space and beyond.  Going to Mars will require space settlement.


The Age of Space Settlement

In the previous post I asked the question, is space settlement worth the cost?  Before we continue to discuss that provocative question, let’s delve a bit into how that world might look.  Let’s travel in time to the ‘age of space settlement’; a few decades from now when thousands of people are living and working in large, self-sustaining communities in space.  Specifically, there are a handful of enormous settlements at the Lagrange points and many more, smaller stations in geosynchronous and low earth orbits.  The settlements are technically under the auspices of a nation state but have de facto independence from Earthly government interference.  Life in the settlements is like life in a company town: everyone knows one another, and there are one or two big employers and lots of smaller ‘cottage’ industries and mom-and-pop shops.  They have sufficient gravity, food and medical care for people to raise children there, although it is rare.  Life is sheltered but bustling with activity.

Outside of cislunar space, there is a small outpost on Mars and humans have begun to explore the moons of Jupiter and the asteroid belt.  Back in the Earth-Moon system, tens of thousands of tons of asteroidal raw material are converted to manufactured goods and structures every month on the various stations and settlements.  Commerce and transportation between Earth, the stations and the settlements is commonplace and relatively inexpensive.  Large multinational corporations, small nation-states, universities and non-profits all perform research, manufacturing, and other efforts in orbit, contributing to the development of the human-centric economy in space.

You may not think it but having such a constellation of human activity in space will have incredible repercussions for the lives of the majority of humans still on Earth – sort of like how a few offshore oil platforms can make or break the economy back on the mainland.  The following posts will discuss those repercussions – both the good and the bad.  The repercussions will be organized into three categories: the first describes effects that are very likely to result from the world described above i.e. things that will happen. The second describes effects that are feasible but not necessarily likely; things that might happen. Finally, the third category describes possible effects: those that will take significant effort and luck (either bad or good, depending on your opinion) to attain. That is, things that could happen.  See you soon!

What about the Moon?!

In our future scenario described in a previous post, the Moon does not play a prominent role in space settlement.  In the future there will be a small Moon base with a few dozen people and it will be managed by the United Nations and a consortium of earthbound nations.  There, dozens of people perform research and pursue limited commercial endeavors, not unlike the International Space Station today.  But lunar activities will be strictly regulated under existing treaties (due to the historic and cultural significance of the moon) forcing most development to occur in the orbital settlements.  It is unlikely that major settlement or exploitation of lunar resources will ever occur due to the prominence of the Moon in several religions and cultural contexts.  Groups like these will vigorously object any attempts to develop the Moon, causing delay and confusion.  Furthermore, consider this: would the average American permit strip mining in Yellowstone Park?  Certainly not because Yellowstone is considered to be a national treasure.  It is for these same reasons that businesses will be unlikely to invest in commercial activities on the Moon: it is our common heritage and so many people may object to using it for private gain.

Is space settlement worth the trouble? Why bother?

“…every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 16, 1953

Is space settlement worth it? Shouldn’t we focus on solving earthly problems like poverty and disease? President Eisenhower was referring primarily to defense spending in the above quote. However, many people feel the sentiment could be applied to space expenditures as well.

And they might be right!  But, on the other hand, you can’t deny that space exploration has provided huge benefits to humankind in the last fifty years.  For example, take global positioning satellites…you know, GPS?  You use GPS every time you use the maps function on your cellphone or any time you consult Google Maps for directions.  GPS is used to track shipments for Amazon and make sure your plane arrives safely and on time.  It’s everywhere!  In fact, a recent study indicated that GPS provides over $67 billion in benefits to the United States alone, every year. Compare this to annual U.S. space spending of about $60 billion per year.  And GPS is only one technology.  MRI scanners, Velcro, Kevlar and numerous other technologies were initially developed by the American space program.  So, yes, space is expensive.  Yes, the money spent on space could be used for other things.  But, historically at least, space has provided incredible benefits for us: benefits that exceed the cost of space exploration.

But what about the future?  Will this trend hold? Should we cut our losses, take the win and redirect space spending to things like healthcare and education? Maybe.  But before we do, maybe we should consider what benefits space might create in the near future. What might we lose out on if we eliminate space funding and abandon the goal of space settlement?  Future posts will attempt to answer this question.  Up next: describing the age of space settlement!


“Unfair” media coverage of risky space launches is justified

On the November 9th edition of the Space Show (I just listened to the podcast today), Dr. Livingstone and his guest Mark Whittington discussed media coverage of the recent Virgin Galactic and Antares mishaps.  They agreed the media coverage had implied that commercial space travel is too dangerous for private tourists and thrill-seekers.  The doctor and Mr. Whittington went on to list several risky activities – such as  skydiving, scuba diving, and even driving – that cause many deaths every year, none of which get nearly the kind of media coverage the recent space tragedies received.  They felt this was unfair to space.  This is incorrect: their reasoning is flawed because they both inhabit the space  policy echo chamber.

Now, before we go on, two things need to be made very clear.  First, what happened to Virgin Galactic, particularly the test pilot Michael Albury, was a bona fide tragedy.  Anything written here is not meant to diminish that event or hurt those affected by it.  Nor is anyone suggesting that the Space Show is diminishing the tragedy.  Second, This Orbital Life enthusiastically supports the Space Show and salutes Dr. Livingstone for maintaining what has become a critical venue of discussion regarding space commercialization.  Any disagreement described here is not intended to be confrontational and is offered in the spirit of a collegial debate.

Back to my original point.  The two gentlemen essentially argued that space travel garners an unfair amount of media attention when there is a disaster.  They said things like “24 people died skydiving last year but that wasn’t in the news!” But the point is not how many people died but rather how many people did it safely.  Space travel accidents get lots of media attention because safe, uneventful trips to space are still relatively rare!  In 2013, the United States Parachute Association recorded 24 fatal skydiving accidents in the U.S. out of roughly 3.2 million jumps.  If the media continues to focus their attention on space accidents when there are 3.2 million tourist visits to space, then space enthusiasts will have a valid complaint. But until civilian space travel is commonplace it is absolutely fair for the media to highlight space tragedies when there are only a few dozen launches per year.  More importantly, we have to realize that because space travel is so limited, it can appear downright scary to the general public!

Rather than focusing on unfair media attention we in the space advocacy community need to remember that not everyone is sold on the promise of space, in fact quite the opposite.  Therefore, in order to counter media attention that focuses exclusively on the perils of space –  we need to work extra hard to get the word out to the general public about the promise of space.  That will have the double benefit of raising awareness of space and reducing anxiety towards it as well.

Why live in space?

The previous post described how space settlements are different from contemporary space stations.  These things are so big that one can’t even really call them space ships, they are literally cities in space.  Because they’re so large, life in a space settlement will be similar to life on Earth.  So why move to space at all?  Two words: customizable weather.

Of course there are other compelling reasons to move to space, too (in case choosing your own weather wasn’t enough).

Health benefits

Living in a space settlement could actually be better for your health than living on Earth.  The vast majority of the food consumed by residents of a space settlement will be grown inside the structure itself.  Remember, these things are big and they will be designed to be self-sufficient.  This means that once you move to a space settlement, all of your food will be locally grown and naturally pesticide free.

Most of the food consumed in a space settlement will be locally grown and pesticide-free.  Image credit: Bryan Versteeg.
Much of the food consumed in a space settlement will be locally grown and pesticide-free. Image credit: Bryan Versteeg.

Why pesticide free?  Because, of course, there are no pests in space settlements! No mosquitos, flies, mice, rats or vermin of any kind.  Also, because the environment is literally made from scratch and since all industry is outside of the settlement, there will be no pollution.  No climate change, no smokestacks and no cars belching exhaust into the air. In fact, there won’t be any cars at all.  Early space settlements, like Kalpana One (from the previous post) will resemble business parks or large cruise ships.  Walking and biking will be easy and, for longer trips, advanced transportation systems will be built into the structure.

So, no bugs and plenty of local, chemical-free food to eat. Oh and about that customizable weather: it’s true! Space settlements will allow their occupants to literally design their own climates.  That means perfect weather all the time.  Consider it: no snow, no rain, no hail, no icestorms. That is, unless the residents want it – the climate and the weather will be absolutely customizable. Furthermore, no mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes or any natural disasters whatsoever. Why not? Because those are Earthly afflictions and would be utterly impossible in a space settlement.

Social benefits

Space settlements also offer the opportunity to establish a greater degree of freedom and independence.  They will be separated from Earth by many thousands of miles, just like the original New World colonies were separated from their mother countries by the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result of that isolation the colonies were able to pursue their own activities without interference.  It is conceivable that space settlements will enjoy similar de facto independence, as well as the benefits of living in a small town.

Besides the political benefits, there are recreational benefits as well. As we know, there is no gravity in space. While space settlements will produce artificial gravity by rotating, there will be portions of the settlement without gravity. This will give rise to new sports and recreational activities.  How about a dip in the zero gravity spherical swimming pool?  Perhaps you’d prefer to strap on a pair of wings and literally fly through the air like a bird? All of this will be possible in a space settlement.

A zero gravity spherical pool, possible only in space.
A zero gravity spherical pool, possible only in space.

Finally, consider the views.  Literally endless views of the cosmos.  The Earth spinning slowly, gracefully below you.  The moon, the planets and the stars seemingly at your fingertips.  Space settlement will undoubtedly offer the best views in the universe.

So, no traffic, no pollution, small town living, tailor-made weather and incredible views. Well that’s great, but what about the rest of us stuck on Earth? What benefits will space settlement provide for the vast majority of humanity?  To be continued…in our next post.

Space settlements vs. space stations

“Not Your Mother’s Space Station”
When we think about space settlements – a place where people live in space – the image that comes to mind might be the International Space Station. I’m delighted to inform you that’s not what we’re talking about here, folks.

Reader, meet Space Settlement.
Space Settlement, meet Reader.

A space settlement.  Image credit: Bryan Versteeg
A space settlement. Image credit: Bryan Versteeg

Compared to the International Space Station, space settlements will be larger, more comfortable, less dangerous and more accessible.

Room to Run
Imagine the size of a typical shopping mall. Space settlements would be at least this large, and perhaps much larger, encompassing acres upon acres of living space. A well-known space settlement design, Kalpana One (pictured above), will have thousands of occupants and it will be open, airy, and full of trees, greenery and water features.

Safety First
Space settlements will be extremely safe places to live and visit. Current space stations rely on mechanical systems to provide oxygen and water. Such systems are prone to failure and require constant upkeep. Space settlements, on the other hand, will use more reliable biological systems to provide fresh air and water. This is possible because a space settlement is enormous and can accommodate a complex ‘ecosystem infrastructure’ to provide breathable air and drinkable water, not to mention food and fiber. There is another important safety difference between space stations and space settlements: settlements will be in a higher orbit, thus avoiding the risks of collision with space debris. There will be no catastrophic explosions on a space settlement like you may have seen in the movie Gravity.

Open to Everyone
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, space settlements will be accessible to all types of people, not just the highly trained specialists and uber-zillionaires who go to space today. Because of their large size and robust construction, space settlements will accommodate all types of people. Babies, elderly people, short people, fat people, all kinds. Rather than being tiny scientific outposts, they will be more like small towns or cities. Occupants will live in houses and apartments and go to work in offices. They may even forget they’re in space. Space settlements, in short, represent a quantum leap in space technology and they will permit a quality of life similar to what is experienced on Earth but instead, it will be in space.

Rather than being tiny scientific outposts, they will be more like small towns or cities.

So, if space settlements will be similar to towns and cities on Earth, why build them at all? Great question! In the next post we will explore the unique advantages of life in a space settlement and how, someday, most people may prefer to live in space rather than on Earth.

Try our Choose Your Own Adventure story!

Click here to read our very own choose your own adventure story called “An Adventure in Cislunar Space.”

To read some background on the story, click here.

What is Orbital Space Settlement?

Orbital space settlement describes the concept of humanity establishing permanent towns and cities in very large man-made structures in space.  These structures can technically be called space stations but they are much, much bigger and not at all like the space stations in existence today.  The structures are better described simply as space settlements or space colonies.

You may also know that humanity has had a permanent presence in space since the early 2000s on the International Space Station (ISS).   The ISS, however, is not a space settlement.  Astronauts go up there for a few months but then return to Earth.  People will want to spend the majority of their time, if not their entire lives, in a space settlement.  In a space settlement, people will be born, go to school, raise families, start businesses and do whatever people do on Earth.

In a space settlement, people will be born, go to school, raise families, start businesses and do whatever people do on Earth.

Curious?  Then click here to read more about the basics of orbital space settlement!

The Big Five Characteristics

In previous posts the rationale for space settlement was discussed, as well as how the next generation of space stations can attract people in order to be successful.  This post will discuss the characteristics the next generation of space stations must have in order to advance the causes of space settlement and developing a human-centric LEO economy.

The next generation of space stations must:

  1. Be truly permanent
  2. Rotate to provide artificial gravity
  3. Support a larger population
  4. Produce
  5. Be flexible

Let’s take these one by one:

1. Be truly permanent – the next generation of space stations, or next gen, must be designed to be repaired and upgraded in space.  Components should be modular and subsystems should be able to be swapped out and upgraded as needs require.  Structural members should be composed of materials that can be repaired using in-space resources.  In short, the next gen should be thought of less as a vessel with a finite life but more like a settlement or a building that can be repaired, upgraded and changed over time.

2. Rotate to provide artificial gravity – the next gen of space stations must have gravity in order to provide a comfortable quality of life and thus persuade the average person to live in space.  While artificial gravity has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, and is assumed to be possible using centripedal acceleration via rotating structures in space, it has never been attempted in real life.  The next gen must incorporate some level of artificial gravity in order to prove the concept so it can be refined for later, full-scale space settlements like Kalpana One.

3. Support a larger population – in keeping with the idea that the next gen of space stations are settlements, and not vessels, we ought to call the people living, visiting and working there a ‘population’ as opposed to a ‘crew.’  Furthermore, the next gen must be able to support a larger population in order to prove that a large number of people can live and thrive in space.  The challenges and opportunities of having dozens of people in space are far greater than having less than ten people in ISS.  Thus, the next generation of space stations should be designed to support a population of at least 100 people.

The next generation space station will support a crew population of at least 100 people.

4. Produce – the next gen of space stations must demonstrate, on a commercial-scale, the ability to extract useful products from raw materials obtained in space, refine those products into salable goods or services and then assemble them into other, more complex items.  For instance, extracting water from captured comets (perhaps delivered to the station by Planetary Resources) and manufacturing liquid oxygen to refuel a government mission to Mars. Or, later on, extracting silicon from lunar regolith (perhaps delivered by Liftport via a lunar space elevator) to produce solar panels to install into a satellite that is docked with the station. Whatever the method, it will be necessary to show that space manufacturing is feasible to advance the cause of space settlement.  It will be necessary to use local materials to construct full-scale space settlements because the tonnage required is too high to boost everything up from Earth. The nextgen must prove that local materials can be refined into usable goods, and it must do so at a profit in order to be sustainable.

5. Be flexible – finally, the next gen of space stations must be able to accommodate a variety of different users and uses within the same facility (as much as is feasible).  Again, in keeping with the idea that this is settlement, and not a single-use vessel, it must be able to accommodate recreation, manufacturing, military, R&D, etc. And, it must be flexible enough to be rearranged internally to accommodate as-yet-unforeseen users and needs.