Space Architecture

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Social Anxiety, and the Potential of Space Development

The Space Review has an article titled "The Limits to Growth and the Return to the Heavens", by Nader Elhefnawy, dated 2 January 2007. He mentions that as energy prices increase, interest in off-world energy sources increases as well. It was during the 1970s that NASA pursued the solar power satellite concept.

The 1970s was a period of intense concern about natural resource shortages. It is associated strongly in the popular memory with the dire predictions of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, the 1973 and 1979 oil price shocks, and dystopian films like Z.P.G., Soylent Green and Logan’s Run.

One response to those concerns was increased interest in mining the oceans—and the skies. G. Harry Stine’s book The Third Industrial Revolution argued that the next great business opportunity was out in the heavens, as miners tapped the asteroids for their metals and manufacturing moved into orbit. After all, the Earth’s solar system is abundant in solar energy and raw materials, and an orbital environment has many advantages. Pollution is not a concern, and many industrial processes not feasible in Earth’s atmosphere and gravity become viable. Of course, getting all the plant and workers into orbit would be a challenge, but the idea was that space launch costs were set for a rapid drop, to well below $1,000 a pound. (Stine predicted that by 1990 they might be in the range of $150 a pound, if you adjust his figures for inflation.)


Concerns about natural resources and hopes for colonizing space did not vanish by any means, but they were given rather less mainstream attention. Indeed, it became fashionable to scoff at those concerns and hopes, but now the pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction, in large part because commodity prices are rising again. Oil prices shot back up to nearly $80 last summer, but this is only the most visible and extreme example. Prices for the very same metals on which Ehrlich lost his bet are rising almost as dramatically. To give but one example, the price of high-grade copper rose from 70 cents in 2002 to over $3 a pound this year. There is, in short, ample reason to think not that the gloomier predictions of the 1970s were fundamentally wrongheaded, but that the 1980s and 1990s represented just a temporary reprieve, a position Thomas Homer-Dixon took in his recent op-ed “The
End of Ingenuity”

As a result the “limits to growth” argument is enjoying renewed popularity, and to a lesser extent, so is the interest in overcoming those limits by going into space. Both the Chinese space agency and a private Russian firm have raised the possibility of mining the moon for helium-3, a potential fuel for fusion reactors. While not explicitly linked to such objectives, the United States and Japan also have plans to establish lunar bases by the 2020s. Along with the planned expansion of civilian and military space programs around the world in general, this suggests a heightening of interest in lowering the cost of space access (an objective long espoused in US National Space Policy documents). Even without deliberate efforts in that direction developments in materials science, particularly the prospect of low-cost carbon nanotubes, may make much lighter spacecraft feasible or, perhaps, even a space elevator. At the same time robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence seem to promise automated, miniaturized operations, reducing the launch burden further still.


It is an interesting, though logical, idea that as the future looks dim for earth-based energy, metals, food, etc, that space industrialization, commercialization, etc, starts being seen as a possibility.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Artificial Biosphere

George Dvorsky writes that there should be an X-prize for an artificial biosphere:

Conventional futurist wisdom suggests that if our atmosphere should completely go to pot — which it certainly appears to be doing — humans could still eek out an existence living in self-sustaining biospheres. This would hardly represent a desirable outcome, but hey, it would certainly beat extinction. Moreover, a successful biosphere would prove to be an important step in the direction of space colonization, terraforming and remedial ecology.
Unfortunately, the impetus these days from the private sector is towards the development of space tourism technologies like space planes and space hotels. Perhaps some entrepreneur should start an X Prize for the first viable and long term biosphere. It is the space tourism industry, after all, that would most certainly benefit from the creation of a working biosphere; humans will not go very far in space without a self-sustaining ecosystem around them.

Moreover, given the rate of global warming and the ongoing depletion of the ozone layer, our atmosphere may start to turn on us. In the more distant future there will be such risks as global ecophagy. In our desperation, we may have no choice to but to dwell in temporary biospheres until we learn to fix our broken planet.

An X-prize is a great idea! The idea of living in an enclosed, isolated, and controlled environment where I could pursure a monastic, scholarly, quiet existence without worrying about cars, taxes, or ex-girlfriends, is most appealing.

Most people think of Biosphere 2, if they think about artficial biospheres at all. Since one of the problems was the loss of oxygen, that problem should be tackled! It might be a difficult excercise, due to the fact that oxygen appears to be very reactive! Chemists everywhere roll their eyes and mutter "duh" in response.

Launch Costs

Found this article on the The Space Review, dated 27 September 2004.
A central tenet of the faith held by advocates, entrepreneurs, and others in an expanded presence in space is that launch costs must, and can, come down. These people will often debate endlessly the means for lowering these costs—reusable launch vehicles, big dumb boosters, or exotic technologies like a space elevator—and even what the magic price point is: $1,000, $500, or $100 a pound, and sometimes lower. However, all will agree that launch costs today are far too high to permit the commercialization and exploration of space they all desire.
During a presentation at the annual AIAA/Utah State University Conference on Small Satellites last month in Logan, Utah, Steven Buckley, an Northrop Grumman aerospace engineer who works with the Rocket Systems Launch Program (RSLP) at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, noted a trend in launch vehicle costs and capabilities. The RSLP has been involved with a number of small military launch vehicles in the last decade, including efforts to reuse decommissioned ICBMs as launch vehicles. Buckley noted that while the capabilities of the vehicles have grown—the Minotaur 4, derived from the Peacekeeper ICBM, has nearly four times the payload capability of a Pegasus XL—the vehicles have all had “flyaway” costs of about $20 million a launch. “It’s difficult to get the total flyaway costs below about $20 million,” he concluded.
Buckley’s analysis found that, for a typical RSLP launch, the launch vehicle contractor costs take up about 65 percent of the total flyaway cost: $13 million for a $20 million launch. Launch agency costs take up 15 percent, with range costs taking up another 10. The remaining 10 percent is split evenly between the launch site facilities and miscellaneous categories. Many of those costs are fixed, so that if the vehicle hardware cost goes down, the share of the flyaway costs absorbed by those other components increases: Buckley estimated that if the launch vehicle contractor costs were cut roughly in half, to $7 million, the total flyaway cost would still be about $13 million.
So, your rocket, whether it's carrying satellites or people is going to cost at least $20,000,000? That sounds similar to the idea that a decent used car in Houston, TX, is going to cost at least $3,000 to $6,000, because the car is going to have some cost of metal, plastic, engineering, safety equipment, and air conditioning.

What's new(er) since 2004? TSR has this article about the Aquarius launch system.

While the failure of a launcher carrying only consumables might be regrettable, it’s not because of the payload value. If many tons of commodities were to be delivered annually and launched in one-ton shots, the loss of one shot would be written off and a replacement launch performed in short order. A number of replacement launches would in fact be expected and included in operating plans. Furthermore, if the consumables were launched in advance of need and maintained on a depot until required, the orbital user would never experience a delay in deliveries or interruption of service even if a commodity-carrying launcher suffered a failure!

For this system to work, the consumables-only launch must be a lot cheaper than the launch of a high-value, possibly irreplaceable payload. Previously published studies show that allowing launch reliability to be reduced significantly, to between 0.67 and 0.8, can provide a way to cut launch cost by an order of magnitude. While a 0.67 delivery success rate might seem shockingly low from a traditional aerospace perspective, it is accepted routinely in terrestrial low-cost delivery systems. Aqueducts and high-tension power lines, for example, routinely lose one-third of their payloads en route, yet are highly successful.

As discussed here previously, the Aquarius system under development by Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) is built on this premise. (See “The myth of heavy lift”, The Space Review, May 17, 2004) The Aquarius launcher concept is a simple, low-margin, pressure-fed, floating-launched vehicle. Its design strategy allows mission reliability reduction to the extent that net delivery cost to orbit is minimized commensurate with the low intrinsic value of its one-ton payloads. SS/L has been developing this concept since 1998 and has been funded by customers to pursue it, with the concept receiving increasingly serious attention as it advances.

The Wikipedia entry for Aquarius has this pdf as a source. Excerpt:

The Aquarius launch vehicle was
discussed in a previous article (Space
Times, May/June 2001), and requires a
total liftoff thrust of 400,000 pounds. Here
low cost launch is obtained by relaxing
reliability. Aquarius system reliability
might be only 67%, so engine reliability
might be 93%. Aquarius will ship low
cost consumables and low-cost, replaceable
spacecraft and other equipment to
orbit. Since stringent protection of reliability
is not required, the cost per pound
to orbit could be $500, an order of magnitude
below that of any present launcher.

Five-hundred dollars per pound! I hope that Space Systems/Loral is successful!