This is my third of three summaries of what I observed at the AIAA Space 2018 Forum (the other posts can be found here and here). This isn’t necessarily the last posting on this conference…I might write later about my overall impressions of the space business in a separate entry in a week or two. However, these entries are long enough (this entry runs over 3,300 words, my apologies), so let’s get to it.
Wednesday, September 19
Plenary: New Directions in Space Exploration – NASA
The opening session was a two-parter, talking about future human space exploration (HSF) efforts from the NASA and industry perspectives. The current exploration environment is being shaped by presidential actions, as recommended by the National Space Council and codified in three Space Presidential Directives (SPGs):
- Provide a sustainable national HSF program post-International Space Station (ISS)
- Facilitate international partnerships built during ISS
- Facilitate commercial partnerships
- Provide new knowledge/partnerships
Streamlining regulations for commercial activities going to and through low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Policy for managing space traffic in LEO. It is getting crowded up there.
As Administrator Jim Bridenstine pointed out on Monday, NASA’s next big project will be the Lunar Gateway, which for a time bore the ungraceful title of “Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G).” Messrs. Jurczyk, Reuter, Guidi, and Clarke from NASA Headquarters were on hand to talk about NASA’s current mission. The Gateway is operating under some assumptions/goals that were similar under the Obama administration:
- Fiscal realism (the realistic expectation that NASA’s budget is unlikely to increase much more than .04% of the total federal budget).
- Commercial partnerships
- Scientific exploration
- Capability building
- Cislunar space (Earth-Moon system)
- Architectural interoperability
- Global cooperation
- Continuity of missions
The Gateway, which will be positioned in a “highly elliptical “near-rectilinear halo orbit,” which will bring the outpost within 930 miles (1,500 km) of the lunar surface at closest approach and as far away as 43,500 miles (70,000 km). The goal is to provide a gradual path to human exploration of the Moon.
Personally, I’m for building landers and going directly to the Moon. However, NASA doesn’t have the budget to do both landers and a station. The primary arguments the agency folks gave for doing the station (which more or less made sense) were that:
- To get to Mars–the premier HSF destination this century–they will need to develop and prove out technologies for the six-month trip to the red planet.
- The Gateway would give NASA experience supporting astronauts far from Earth and beyond the Van Allen radiation belts, which is a more hazardous operation than ISS, which is closer and protected by the Earth’s magnetic field. Having a station in deep space would allow NASA to retire some risks for long-duration interplanetary spaceflight.
- The Gateway can be used to identify potential landing locations for future human missions (however, isn’t that why we’ve been flying Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter around the Moon at around 50 km away?).
- It could serve as a lower-energy destination for anyone wanting to launch/return samples from the Moon.
- The reason the agency hasn’t aimed for a lunar surface habitat is that they haven’t determined where they want to put one…or where one might be feasible.
The downside of the Gateway, as Robert Zubrin observed, is that if NASA builds the Gateway and doesn’t expect a major increase in its budget, it will not have money to build a lander. However, the agency seems to be heading in the direction of funding commercial landers to the surface. They recently released a request for proposals for commercial lunar payload services (CLPS) for small and medium-sized payloads, which could start as early as 2019. If that turns out to be the path forward, then some of Zubrin’s objections could be overcome.
Robotically tended, the Gateway will be empty most of the time, with crews occupying the station 30-90 days at a time once or twice a year, depending on the SLS manifest. When completed, its habitable interior will be volume 125 cubic meters (4,414 cubic feet). It will include a power and propulsion module, robotic arm, U.S./European hab module (which could include an inflatable module), sample return vehicle, logistics module, and airlock. There are not expected to be a lot of extravehicular activities (EVAs) on the Gateway, however; the robotic arm will handle most external activities. The power and propulsion module could be placed in orbit by a crew flying SLS/Orion as soon as 2022.
The audience asked the NASA people some pointed questions during the Q&A, including asking what NASA planned to do to avoid cost and schedule overruns, as have happened on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and Orion spacecraft (“You guys are really throwing softballs, aren’t you?”). They responded that missions within the Science Mission Directorate (aside from JWST) have been delivered on time and budget since 2010-11. The agency plans to “learn along the way.” They are also looking at commercialization plans for the ISS, to see what practices could be taken from those proposals.
Plenary: New Directions in Space Exploration – Industry
The second part of the plenary included representatives from Lockheed Martin, which is building the Orion spacecraft and Sierra Nevada Corporation, which is building the Dream Chaser winged crew return vehicle for ISS.
The reps were asked what government could do to facilitate commercial activities in space. They indicated that some things are already happening, such as the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and now the CLPS opportunity mentioned earlier. They also suggested that “industry and NASA listen to each other.” NASA is allowing industry to use agency facilities. There was a feeling that NASA should be “less telling us how to do it and more telling us what you need.” There was also a comment to the effect that sometimes NASA adds requirements that inhibit commercial activity.
Lessons learned from the Orion program included the value of constant communication between contractors and government customers as well as among the contractors themselves rather than working through the government. Shared resources were also useful.
As far as the Gateway, there was some concern about keeping it affordable. This could best be done by building it incrementally, but not larding on a lot of requirements. “You have to control scope” was one observation. The industry reps felt it important that the platform be flexible rather than trying to build it from the start to be all things to all people. However it is built, the Gateway will need to prove that it can operate untended for long stretches of time. ISS is built for 24-hour occupation and quick/easy support from Earth.
Other Morning Sessions
- Earth-Phobos Transfer with Ballistic Trajectory in Sun-Mars System. This paper was presented by a student from the People’s Republic of China. As I noted in my tech writing blog, he was speaking in Engineering English about orbital mechanics, which was at least three language removes from things this English major understands. As I heard it, he was looking to find a way to reduce the propellant requirements for spacecraft approaching orbit for Mars or its moon Phobos. I have included the abstract below for anyone interested. It soared over my head at about 1.5 km/second. Squared.
- A Global Access Transportation System for a Mars Exploration Architecture. This paper was delivered by a student from Texas A&M University. His architecture envisioned a human Mars mission designed to provide global coverage to multiple sites on and above Mars. The study settled on two types of vehicles: a point-to-point rocket for travel between surface sites >600 km apart and an orbital vehicle for moving to destinations like Phobos. The vehicles would use methane and liquid oxygen so it could use in-situ resource utilization, extracting carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere. He also included some rather clever simulations of how the vehicles would appear. However, I could not find those simulations on his site.
- Design of a Mars Research Base with Crew. This student presentation was given by a student from the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her architecture included using a larger, reusable version of the “sky crane” used to land the Mars Curiosity Rover. In this case, the automated sky crane would land multiple human habitation modules on the surface. It would stay attached to one of the modules and would lift off to take the crew back to orbit at the end of the mission. Wild!
- Martian Module Base. The gentleman delivering this paper was an engineer/architect from Italy. He, too, was using English as a second language, but he was talking about hardware, which I understand a lot better than orbital mechanics. One of the key components of his Mars surface habitats was an internally generated artificial magnetic field, which would be necessary to protect the crew from radiation. Some of his habitats were torus (donut) shaped, resembling the Van Allen Belts above our own atmosphere. There was also an artificial magnetic field in his interplanetary (Earth-Mars) spacecraft. What intrigued me about the design, aside from its interesting honeycomb segments, was its habitat ring, which spun for artificial gravity, but was off-center. Try to imagine a paper ring but slanted so that from the side it looked like a parallelogram. I need to find a good Engineering Italian translator to ask him a question about whether that odd ring would create strange torques on the structure. Beautiful designs, but I’m not certain how practical they are. Based on what I heard in the room, I was not the only one with questions.
The afternoon started with a choice of three plenary sessions. I chose the one on Cis-Lunar Economy Development. The panel included Melissa Sampson from Ball Aerospace, James Vedda from The Aerospace Corporation, Carissa Christensen from Bryce Space and Technology (where, full disclosure, I worked in 2015-2016), and Andrew Rush from Made in Space.
Vedda spoke first, explaining that cislunar space means the Earth-Moon system (my addition: In ancient Rome, “Cisalpine Gaul” was Gaul on the Italian (“this”) side of the Alps). Vedda stated that opinions on making money beyond Earth orbit are mixed. A U.S. Ambassador (Roger Harrison) has stated that “No one will ever make a dime beyond GEO [geosynchronous orbit]” while John Marburger, Science Advisor to George W. Bush, stated that the question of future space exploration was “whether we want to incorporate the solar system into our economic sphere.”
He next shared his thoughts on trends between now and 2050, stating that GEO will continue to be valuable real estate, with the number of satellites and space operators increasing. Orbital debris, however, will increase as a hazard in near-Earth space. Also, the variety of marketable space applications is likely to increase. The “iffy” items that can’t be predicted are things such as the rate of growth, the balance between human and robotic activities, and the government vs. private-sector balance of activities. On the plus side, space is now part of the economic mainstream, from an operational and investment point of view.
Other unknowns include:
- Can we “live off the land” in space?
- Can long-term public-private partnerships exist?
- What human/robot mix will be used?
- How many people? (Vedda suggested that this was the wrong metric–instead, you want to measure “what you are sustaining that gives you new knowledge or resources.”
- How frequently do they return to Earth?
The U.S. Department of Commerce is becoming a “one-stop shop” for space activities. However, a long-term U.S. space strategy will take years, not months, to implement. Regulatory reform is on the agenda first, but it’s only a small piece of the action. Other issues Commerce will have to address include:
- Earth-to-orbit transportation (handled by FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST))
- Radio frequency spectrum management (FCC)
- Space surveillance/traffic management
- Space weather
- On-orbit servicing (e.g., refueling, repair)
- Human-rated modules in orbit/on other worlds
- Hardware/software standardization
- Resource extraction and processing
- Planetary protection (forward and backward contamination)
- Energy collection and distribution
- Manufacturing facilities
As usual, the technology is faster than the policy machinery. Vedda recommended a few of his books for additional information:
Andrew Rush is CEO of Made In Space, Inc., a company that has placed two 3D printers aboard ISS. He began by asking “why don’t we have our science fiction future yet?” He explained that the best approach would be to all of the various activities that could be done and then identify business cases for each one. He felt that manufacturing would open the space economy to other activities. The ability to create and maintain assets (building in space + space-based products for Earth) in space will be key.
As far as hardware to be built for economic development, Rush identified the following:
- LEO: Earth observation, CubeSats
- GEO and Lagrange Points: Satellite servicing, manufacturing/assembly of large-aperture telescopes, GEO base
- Deep Space: 100 kW solar array, Mars cruise vehicle truss
People hoping to create value-added processes will need to ask the same questions they would ask on Earth: Can I create something useful/interesting? What’s the market size? In the near term, space-based products for Earth could include optical fiber, metals, semiconductors, and bioprinting.
Carissa Christensen from Bryce Space & Technology focused on “the numbers,” starting with the fact that as of now the “space economy” amounts to $350 billion, 25% of which comprises government space budgets. The biggest pieces of that economy include space-based DSL internet and Global Positioning Systems (GPS); computer chip sets; and satellite manufacturing and commercial launch (~$20B).
What’s new in the space business is the amount of atypical investments being made in the market–as much as $2.5-3B by venture capitalists, who are usually averse to excessive risk. Also, billionaires with advocacy visions (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, etc.) are willing to put their own money into space, focusing primarily on satellites or launch vehicles.
The factors moving the market forward include prizes such as the Google Lunar X Prize; general investor interest, which wasn’t there before; and increased government interest. Early-stage companies are starting to raise serious money. Moon Express has raised $58 million, iSpace has raised $90M.
I’ll spare you some of the details, but in the Q&A session, the questions were equally exciting and thought provoking:
- How does a company make money without government assistance?
- Would we need a new economic paradigm to develop cislunar space?
- What are appropriate/inappropriate roles for government?
- What are the most viable space manufacturing business models?
Bottom line: there is reason for hope, optimism, and excitement, as there is more diversity in the numbers and types of players; there will be successes and failures to watch; and government and the private sector are investing in infrastructure to make other activities possible.
Other Afternoon Sessions
- Titan Submarines: Options for Exploring the Depths of Titan’s Seas. I came into this session late because I was late leaving the commercial space discussion. Saturn’s moon Titan is one of the most interesting places in the solar system because it has an atmosphere as well as oceans composed of methane and ethane–a lot of what fuels our transportation system today. Because of its curious chemistry, it could also be a possible location for extraterrestrial life. The presenter on this topic proposed designs for submarines to explore the seas of Titan. This would be challenging because the moon has seas that are all liquid methane or liquid ethane, each of which has different densities and thus levels of buoyancy. A submarine built for one sea could sink in another! The overall surface temperature on Titan is -178 degrees Celsius (-288 degrees Fahrenheit). Gravity is .14 g, about the same as Earth’s Moon, and the average depths of Titan’s seas are 200 to 1000 meters (656-3,280 feet). This has implications for submarine design as well. The pressure at a depth of 1000 meters is 12 bar (174 pounds/square inch) on Titan vs. 100 bar (1,450 psi) on Earth. Instruments aboard the submarines would include depth sounders, chemical analyzers, imagers, sonar, and spectrometers. The designs the author proposed ranged from something resembling a submarine on Earth to more of a bubble or turtle-shaped hull and would fit inside the cargo bay of an X-37B.
- Communities for Science: A Study in Creating Social Space for Scientific Discussion. This talk turned out to be quite different from what I imagined (something about forming societies for scientific exploration missions?). It was, instead, a summary of a project to analyze scientific literacy issues and to foster more scientific literacy in a specific community (in this case, Sonoma County, California). The author conducted her survey in 2016 and focused on space, which she hoped/assumed would not be as politicized as some other science-related topics, such as climate change. The author experienced some challenges because she didn’t get a lot of participation from STEM professionals as she had hoped; there was no easy way to engage people on science-related topics if they just didn’t care; and there was a fundamental distrust of STEM experts among her sample population. Furthermore, her survey participants were more interested in talking about politically volatile issues (e.g. climate change) or if a technology directly affected them (will it affect my healthcare? will it put food on my table?). The survey included an education class on NASA’s spinoffs, the results of which surprised the participants. Bottom line? There’s a lot of work to be done to improve STEM literacy.
- Building the Moon Village: Human Culture on Another Celestial Body. This presentation was given by a German student of theology and chemistry. The Moon Village is a non-governmental organization dedicated to coordinating public support for a human settlement of the Moon and beyond. Their culture working group (for which this paper was developed) was concerned about discussing the diverse cultural factors and foster understanding about what the culture of a space settlement might look like. The presenter asserted that while culture creates order, every time a new technology is created, it creates inequality, oppression, and exploitation, but also increases diversity. In essence, the more technological development there is, the weaker the shared culture becomes. The “culture of the Moon” will be affected by the fact that there is no “natural environment” within which humans can live…the habitable environment is entirely manufactured, the actual external environment is uninhabitable. The bottom-line questions the author was asking were: how will the settlement inhabitants relate to “nature” in an artificial environment; what sorts of technology changes could create deprivation; and how do you keep a shared lunar culture from splintering into smaller groups? He suggested looking to Carthusian monasteries or (yes, you’re reading this correctly) prisons as possible models for implementing a stable culture on other worlds.
- Administrative Policy for Stochastic Democracy. This presentation focused on the governance of space habitats–not the law-and-order functions of government, but rather the regulatory bodies…in short, the bureaucracy. The authors started with the following assumptions: human beings are selfish and inconsiderate; large organizations tend toward inefficiency; and powerful groups tend toward a form of corruption that ensures they can stay in power. He was proposing “scalable, adaptive governance” for settlements 4,169 people and up. He noted the following problems with bureaucracies: proscriptive regulations–telling people HOW to do things; corruption; bribery; abuse of power; and stagnation/non-responsiveness. To overcome these, his governmental model proposed a transparent regulatory process; full disclosure of government agents’ interests; including externalities, such as environmental impact, in any regulations; open debate and notices of intent in the development of regulations; rotating bureau chairmanships; and irregular changes to the administrative structure to keep people from getting too comfortable or acquiring too much power in one niche. I’m not certain I buy it, but maybe it should be tried on Earth before potentially screwing up a space settlement.
I finished my time at the conference speaking with a customer and a space advocate friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We got caught up on various people we knew and some of the shop talk and gossip that affects every industry. No, I won’t share it with you. Suffice to say, it’s a busy, interesting time to be in the space business, and there’s more work coming.
Thanks for reading.