Monday, July 20, 2009

Exploration, Development and Settlement of Space

Space exploration, space development and space settlement up until now have seen as a continuum which go together. Once we have explored space we will develop it which will mean settling it. That is the way it was always assumed it would work, but today the paths seem to be diverging. One path would lead us to explore Mars. One Path would have us develop Solar Power Satellites. But where is the path that leads to settlement?

The exploration of Mars seems to be the path of choice for many in the space movement. The problem is Mars is the Easter Island of space, far from everything, few unique resources and mainly of interest because of the evidence of past life there. The Moon has a much greater development potential than Mars but she is totally ignored. The Moon is the girl next door and Mars is the Hollywood sweet heart. Nothing shatters a romantic image faster than reality. So maybe we need to go to Mars so we can get past the fixation and really move forward with development.

The development of space solar power is quickly becoming a necessity for the continued economic survival of our society. By default it seems to be our only hope for sufficient amounts of carbon free base load power. Terrestrial solar and wind do not provide base load power, clean coal maybe unworkable, nuclear is too dangerous to spread widely to less stable countries. Space solar power is the ultimate in clean energy source when made from lunar materials, since nothing would imapct earth's environment except the power. The Moon is actually closer to geostationary orbit energy wise than the earth. Providing a reasonable percent of the Earth's power needs with space solar power would most cost effectively be done through developing the Moon. This would seem great for space settlement, but unfortunately the current plans for mining the Moon and building space solar power would be done with automation. The new Movie "The Moon" shows what it might be like, one man one the Moon supervising an automated base. This doesn't bode well for space settlement.

Space settlement must be our ultimate goal. We must have thriving communities off of Earth or we are doomed to extinction on the Earth, it is just a matter of time. Why should humans go into space? There is one reason that can never be automated and isn't dependent on economic justification. That is science. We will never really be able to automate science. While we can automate particular experiments. The scientific exploration is testing the unknown automation can only be done where you know what you are trying to do. To fully understand the history of life on Mars, and the geology of the Moon will require humans on the Moon and Mars for long periods of time. To use the far side of the Moon's radio silence for all the possible radio astronomy observations and the lunar stability and vacuum for all the possible physics experiments would take large numbers of scientists, engineers and support staff. To do these experiments will take years not days. So the scientists will be the settlers of space. Around the science bases the cities will form because they will be the first markets in space.

While many argue that science can be done more effectively on the ground, this will not always be true. First, if we go to Mars and develop space solar power, the cost of space travel will have dropped dramatically. Second, if the goal is science than we will be sending scientist to do their own research. Not doing science by proxy or as an add on to a mission with other purposes. Third, eventually we will research the limits of the the experiments possible on Earth. Eventually, science in space will be justified in terms of cost/ benefit once launch cost go down, missions are designed for science as the main purpose, and as we push the limits of Earth.

Getting beyond the limits of Earth is why we have to explore, develop and settle space. While the paths of these are diverging because we have already explored the best place to develop and development may no longer require humans. We must continue to strive for the exploration, development and settlement of space even if these goals are pursued separately.


JLeonid said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts as part of the big anniversary. I'm not an expert, so I won't debate you on the details of Moon vs. Mars settlement. To me they go hand in hand, depending on how we proceed. Regardless, hope you enjoyed the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing!

Karen Cramer Shea said...

My point is they seem to be diverging rapidly. No one want to settle the Moon now. Every one wants to run off to Mars. If we go to Mars with out real lunar settlement there is no way we are getting Martian Settlement.

I hope you enjoyed the 40th Anniversary also.

Keith Henson said...

Hi Karen

I want to differ with you on some of the details.

The thing that gets in the path of all space projects is lift cost, currently ~$20,000 per kg to GEO. Reusable vehicles and a large traffic model will get that down, but even a milion tons per year is unlikely to get it below $500/kg. At that cost a robot run moon base might be built, but the cost is over a trillion dollars and it takes decades.

I have worked out a proforma analysis of a transport system using chemical rockets for the first stage and high exhaust velocity laser propulsion for the second stage. After several years of buildup, the cost goes under $100/kg and the cost of power falls to where it displaces fossil fuels by simply underpricing them. The peak investment for this first pass attempt came in a bit under $60 billion and it rapidly pays back the entire capital.

It's still a big number and it's difficult for me to explain to people. I think people really need to appreciate the rocket equation, i.e., rocket science, to understand why this is a 5 to 1 improvement. That's unrealistic so I am looking for a way to get the idea over to people who will never get the concept of exponential.

Google oil drum henson to see my attempt to explain it. Ideas on how to make it understandable to non rocket scientists would be highly appreciated.

Of course if we start building power satellites with all the parts hauled up from the earth using human labor, space habitats and ET materials should just develop naturally. Especially since the best power sat design uses so much nickel.

Keith Henson