Current US Space Budget $25,000,000,000 / Year
The current US space policy and goals are confusing. This is extremely upsetting. We are spending a lot $25B / yr on space development (including military spending) and if we don’t know what we are trying to achieve there is a good chance a lot of it is wasted money. Let’s not waste money when so many important things need money. More important we are not achieving goals we could achieve.
How we got here.
In the 1990s the US space program was drifting. We were spending billions and billions on the shuttle and the space station.
It was massively overbudget but even more concerning almost nobody knew why we were doing these things or if there was any value at all from the effort. The Shuttle was supposed to reduce the cost to space but ended up costing way more than any other way of getting to space. The space station was a monstrosity of spending that we were hoping to split with the world but the world was making marginal contributions yet we seem locked into spending 100 billion dollars on this thing and nobody really knew what it was for other than world peace.
Many people who wanted a better space program in the late 90s started an underground movement with Robert Zubrin at the head which promised a more intelligent plan and cheaper way to do space. He outlined a plan to get to Mars for low cost by using mostly robots. This struck a chord and thousands of people spontaneously from every major part of the world interested in space. Zubrin hosted a number of these conferences. I attended two of these conferences with my son Jonathon and it was fascinating. All these people were coming up with thousands of ideas how to do innovative things. Academia showed up, serious proponents from industry. This was not ‘comicon’ the science fiction conference it was serious proposals, practical real stuff. It was an incredible thing to see and be a part of. In a few years, Zubrin showed that someone with an idea can make a difference. All he did was a write a book and before long he had thousands coming to conferences giving lectures and promoting him.
After the 2003 Columbia disaster people were coming to grips with the failure and misdirection of the space program and Bush embraced Zubrin’s ideas and the Constellation program was made US space policy. So the story of Robert Zubrin the guy with an idea actually changed US space policy. Part of that plan was to retire the space Shuttle and bring private space companies into existence. I and many others were deeply skeptical any private companies would be able to do anything and with the shuttle retired the US space program seemed to have completely come off the tracks. We were actually paying the Russians billions to send our people up to our space station paid 90% with US bucks that the Russians and others shared for much less money for a program it seemed with no purpose or much value.
When Elon Musk came into the picture with SpaceX he was at first treated with tremendous skepticism. Elon had made $200 million from Paypal and had a dream of building rockets. By the third rocket launch failure, Elon had almost spent his entire $200 million on his dreams. He was virtually bankrupt. Easy come, easy go I suppose. He had enough money for a 4rth launch which was successful. NASA called the next week with a $1.5B contract to bring 10 payloads to the Space Station. Elon was saved. It was a start. Amazing story for a child who grew up in South Africa and immigrated to the US. Since then, Orbital Sciences has also successfully launched rockets.
Musk’s dream was more ambitious and directed than NASA’s! He planned to build a manned craft and go to Mars himself if NASA didn’t want to do it. He was going to make reusable launch vehicles to drastically reduce the cost, a dream the space shuttle had tried with 10s of billions in NASA funding had failed to achieve.
When Obama came into power he looked at the Constellation program and even as a dream he was convinced it was too expensive. The Obama administration came up with America’s current plan.
The Current US Space Program
The current space program is based on the idea that we should capture an asteroid, push the asteroid to Mars and study it. When we finish that according to this plan we will be good enough to go to Mars. So, the plan includes eventually getting to Mars but much later.
If it weren’t for SpaceX and the ability to get to a lower cost, Musk’s dream of reusable launch vehicles and his manned DragonV2 capsule I am sure NASA would not have much for us to look forward to. Yet this pointless program is costing us $25 Billion/year. Even I would advocate just scrapping most of it.
For instance, Nasa is building its own rockets again. The SLS Space Launch System will be able to lift a lot more into space than a single Falcon-9 from SpaceX but it is a disposable rocket that will cost a fortune to operate. SpaceX will be able to deliver mass to space at 1/5 or less the cost of the SLS. Why do we want to do that and undercut a pioneer who has built the only economic way to do space exploration. Musk got Zubrin’s essential idea which is it is all about cost to lift weight iuto orbit.
NASA should be advocating building the cheapest, not the biggest rocket!!! Is this just some ego play by NASA scientists who want to get back into the business of rocket building again? This will cost us many billions for no good reason other than prestige. To my thinking, we have been doing this for the last 20 years at a complete waste of taxpayers money. Now that I’ve seen a private company can build things the public sector never could, at 1/40th the cost of NASA, why would we want to go back to NASA building rockets?
Please stop this madness. We are incredibly lucky that we have someone as smart and capable as Elon willing to participate in this space business. It’s incredibly risky and he has designed the best rockets and vehicles America has ever had. Why would we want to construct our own rockets again at government prices and non-reusable?
The DragonV2 capsule which Musk and SpaceX have designed has 3 separate ways for astronauts to save themselves. He has built it and is testing it, a crew containment and transportation vehicle which is clearly safer than anything NASA ever built, ever dreamed of building and he did this for 1/40th the cost of NASA. He is offering to cut in 1/4 the cost we pay the Russians for manned transit to the ISS. NASA signed on for 2.6billion. That’s great but the V2 and subsequent SpaceX projects may do whatever we need at vastly lower cost, sooner and safer than America building another rocket and crew cabin at government costs and overhead.
To NASA’s credit, it has given SpaceX $2.6 billion to transport 10 groups of astronauts to the Space Station using the Dragon V2 and Falcon rockets. I’m all for redundancy and not having one vendor. If we also want to fund Orbital Sciences or Spaceship Gallactica to build manned transport and / or large lift rockets, fine but let’s not imagine that the government can build rockets anymore that are economic.
The space station could be used as a building and collection point for future contstruction and deployment of missions to other planets. As such it should be redesigned to support this function with a way to store fuel for rockets, have supplies and robotic arms to put larger spaceships together. Let’s either mothball the ISS which is costing us $10 billion a year or make it useful. Can anybody think of 1 thing the Space Station has done that is at all useful to humanity? One experiment that changed something? Why are we doing this? If not for an eventual moon mission then let’s be honest with ourselves. It is a waste.
Let’s consider the possible goals of a US Space Program
I believe you should always start by looking at your goals. Being goal directed is a key strategy to success. A random walk to get somewhere doesn’t work usually. In agile methodology, we still have a goal but we iterate in small steps but we still have a goal. I am advocating we have to have a goal.
Possible goals of a US space program:
1) Maximum economic benefit: Determine what possible value could be derived from space and then pursue it. Mine asteroids, other planets, the moon, develop solar power in space.
There has been a lot written about the possible benefits of asteroids and comets as well as the moon for resources. If we can develop the technology to get to them and redirect them safely they could be an amazing resource for the human race. There are virtually unlimited quantities of every element you can imagine in these asteroids.
Some have imagined space solar power harvested and delivered to the Earth using microwaves. The technology has made recent advances. It may be a practical power source because unlike on the surface the ability to point 100% of the time at the sun and have no clouds to block the rays it would be more efficient and continuous source of energy. The moon has huge quantities of He3 in the soil at the surface. This is a very powerful source of energy.
The moon has huge quantities of He3 in the soil at the surface. This is a very powerful source of energy. If we could deliver this to the Earth economically it might payoff.
If any of these could produce enough value to justify a space program then this might be the best path forward because it would always be better to be able to offset the costs of the program with real benefits.
2) Maximum exploration: Develop technologies to explore as much as possible to learn about our universe and solar system, develop massive telescopes and perform experiments, create robots that can automate much of our exploration.
As an altruistic exercise, this is hard to argue with. Even if we don’t do anything else this probably makes sense to continue exploration at some level. The good news is that we can do this at a slow pace or faster pace depending on our interest at the time. Much of this will not produce benefits for a very long time other than for mental stimulation. One example of this is a super “Hubble” even 10 or 100 times bigger than the Webb telescope planned. The ability to actually look at planets in other solar systems. We would be the ultimate voyeurs. Peering in on the rest of the universe but not participating.
3) Contact with any possible other sentient species: seek to develop massive sensors to hear other species
A goal of Carl Sagan has fallen in disrepute. We have spent a long time trying to find evidence of other intelligent species to no avail. What most people don’t realize is that the technology to truly scan a significant part of the sky in the right bandwidths is not going to be available for several more years.
This is not a huge cost program. Discovering we are not alone would have enormous impacts. It is likely even the shortest smallest contact with another species will have some knowledge gaining potential.
Summary of first 3 goals
Goals 1,2,3 can be achieved without man’s participation at all. We can build robotic craft and learn to build more and more complex robots without human involvement in exploration. The cost of these goals is dramatically less without humans because involving humans in space travel is extremely costly. Humans require a massive amount of extra work to sustain them and bring along their safety systems and support systems.
Goals 1 – 3 seem like reasonable goals which could be pursued independently.
4) Maximum survival of the human race: Try to get our seed out to other planets, possibly in other solar systems. Try to establish colonies on other viable planets or moons.
This is Zubrin’s plan and is the plan many talk about as a possible goal. I advocate this goal. My hope is that somewhere along the way in implementing this goal we will discover econonic benefits to our exploration(Goal 1) and this will then spur funding for a future human multi-world ecosystem.
There are really 2 independent subgoals possible with this goal.
4a) Spread the life that seems to be limited to one planet in the universe now to other planets.
This seems like a moral calling. It doesn’t make any difference if the life is human, plant or other. The point is simply to give other planets a headstart. Many people believe in panspermia which is the idea that life on earth originated in the stars. Maybe someone did this for us seeding Earth with materials that made life possible faster. It is a possible scenario. By following goal 4a) we would simply be continuing what some benevolent species did for us or being the benevolent parents of some future living things.
4b) A second subgoal is to find a place for us to colonize. I talk about this goal more below.
5) Make us feel good by doing big projects that demonstrate we are impressive and create goodwill with other countries by including them in such programs.
This is what we have been doing. It’s a complete waste of money. The idea world peace comes from this is ridiculous. I really hate this is the idea behind most of our space program today.
6) A combination of the above.
Since we have so few funds doing a combination of goals is stupid and is tantamount to saying we have no goal. I won’t waste time on this. We might do multiple things but let’s be clear on what our priority is and why. Pick a goal. Everthing else is secondary.
Goal 4 Survival of humanity (Goal 4b)
Why do I think this is a good goal?
My thinking about this is simple. Life is apparently very rare. Innumerable things could happen that would end life on Earth either very quickly or over a short duration. This would be a bad thing.
I think humans are cool. I am proud of what we have accomplished generally. I realize not all of human history is filled with the best examples of why we should be so proud but overall we have risen from the swamp and we have learned about our planet, ourselves and more and more about our universe. We deserve to survive. I would like to think that the human race is NOT limited to one planet. Yes, it is pride. If we do bite the dust at some point I would like human race’s epitaph to say we went to mars and tried to explore beyond our ball.
If people were asked: “What is the most impressive thing you can point to that humans have done?” to explain what mankind had done at its peak I think a universal answer would be we stepped on the moon. That is the most obvious evidence we have climbed above the monkey level that we built a society capable of some things. Some people will point to some art. That is very subjective and does not need society. It is also very individual. Maybe Beethoven is worth mentioning to some other species as our highest creature but I believe it can’t be a building, or an art work, piece of music or a constitution. It all comes down to: humans were able to work together to understand their world, build a spaceship and a little bit of earth of our own. Send our people to a different planet. It really is the most amazing thing we’ve ever done in my opinion.
Also, so far as we know, sentient life exists nowhere else in the universe. That’s probably not true but given that we don’t know it makes sense to assume it and do what we can to make sure we aren’t the last living sentient things in the universe.
Panspermia (Goal 4a)
There are variations on the Pansperimia plan which involve possibly being careful not to interfere if life already exists on that planet. So, we may want to have a really good way to tell if our probe lands on an already “living” planet in which case we may simply want to destroy the probe or monitor the life and feedback data to us later or even trying to combine our life with theirs.
A further improvement of this plan is to figure out how best to deliver life to a dead planet. Simply dropping supplies of life to mars may not work. Maybe we need to send technology to help terraform or adapt species. Such technology is well beyond our current abilities so we might want to engage in a simpler strategy first and develop more and more capability.
While spreading seed is our best bet possibly to insure that life spreads among the universe it is not a good way to satisfy any of our immediate desires of saving the current set of humans. We need to occupy a planet or moon for that.
In 1990s Robert Zubrin realized it would be possible to construct a cheaper mission to mars. The goal of such a mission would be to establish colony on mars. Therefore the goal of his program was goal 4 above.
Assuming you accept goal 4 as the goal to go for then it gets to the practicality of colonization. Is it really possible or is it going to be like the moon landings. Something we do a few times for a limited amount of time and then return home and never really be able to follow up.
I say we shouldn’t go until we feel we can build a sustainable colony. Let’s be patient and work on the technology to do this as long as necessary until we are sure we have a viable possibility to actually stay.
There are many reasons to believe that Mars is both the most likely and the most habitable of all the moons and planets we know about that we could possibly colonize. I provide some links to some proof that Mars is viable. Among the things that Mars has is a much wider array of minerals and chemicals available easily for colonizers. If you read those articles I point to you will see what we have on Mars is a panoply of all the chemicals we would need to be able to sustain ourselves.
Mars has enough water close to the surface of the planet to have an ocean 50 meters depth all over Mars. Because the earth is 70% water Mars actually has the same land area as the earth! It is a mini-earth. The gravity of Mars is 1/3 the earth which is enough hopefully so humans don’t fall apart like we do in zero gravity. Mars has a small atmosphere that actually hits ZERO C during the summer close to the surface at the equator. It’s cold but it isn’t -273C like space or the moon.
There are many books talking about the long term possibility to terraform or aeroform mars. The idea being to pump up the atmosphere of Mars enough so that it was possible to go outside without a spacesuit on at least. It would probably take a century to do but it isn’t impossible. The atmosphere that Mars did have was probably blown off by asteroids. Since the early formation of the solar system the asteroids smashed into mars quite a bit more than the earth. With less gravity these asteroids probably eventually removed the atmosphere but it can hold an atmosphere barring new catastrophic incidents.
Compared to the moon or moons of jupiter or saturn there are clear advantages to Mars. It is about 9 months travel time to Mars which is a lot less than these other places which are closer to 2 or 3 years. The time delay speaking to someone on Mars is between 4 minutes and 24 minutes depending on the relative positions of the Earth and Mars in our orbits.
I think the second choice if not Mars is the moon or possibly our own space station built on a massive scale. A moon station wouldn’t be much different than a large space station.
Let’s assume the only viable goal is Going to Mars
Can such a goal can be obtained at a reasonable cost compared to our economic strength? Zubrin laid out a cheaper plan to mars. Let me explain why I agree with Zubrin that this is the best strategy for our space program. The basics of Zubrins plan are as follows:
1) Develop cheap lift to space, develop robotic skills, chemistry, life support knowledge and experiment with how to get to mars and live on mars safely without using people initially. Basically get the technology to be able to support a colony, including mining resources needed on mars by robots, production of food and repair as well as transport and survival in high radiation environments and low gravity environments working and put it all there cheaply first. Then send the humans.
2) Create a lot of shipments to mars of robots, supplies, equipment and start to create an automated colony that functions without humans. Have sufficient resources for 10 years or more without resupply on the planet available delivered at low cost by cheap lift to space rockets. Put the facilities there and prove they can be sustained for at least 6 months prior to sending people. Also send return mission rockets and fuel, transport and exploration.
3) Send people on a one way mission.
4) Work towards a self-supporting system where minimal resupply is necessary over time.
Phase 1 Research Develop
Phase 1 is done at low cost because no humans need be involved for almost everything. Much of this is simply technology development and tests. We know for instance that humans don’t do well with more than 6 months of weightlessness. We need to test if people who spend 9 months to Mars need a rotating platform for instance to simulate gravity. Is 1/3 gravity of mars sufficient for living creatures to survive? Can we develop technology to separate materials in the martian soil to produce things that our colonists can use to expand their colony and become self-sufficient. How will they extract water from the soil or from the poles? How will they grow food?
There is a lot of work to be done in Phase 1 that we haven’t done yet and for which there are NO CURRENT plans to do. One obvious thing that has pissed me off about our program is that we never built a rotating space station. Even Authur C Clarke anticipated the space station we would have in 2001 would be a rotating space station. Yes, it would have been bigger and more expensive but at least then it was a viable space station. This thing people can’t live there for more than 6 months without putting their lives at risk. It would also have demonstrated the potential for future travel and habitation. The current space station is so many compromises and still it was too expensive. We need more Elon Musks and less bureaucrats.
Phase 1 could be accomplished over 10-15 years and $50-100 billion. This is much less than our current spending and demonstrates the extreme waste of the space station. Elon is making this phase possible by creating a reusable rocket that lowers the cost to space dramatically allowing us to build larger and larger systems in space which we eventually send to mars and test there.
Phase 2 Deploy
Phase 2 is the deployment phase. The cost of this phase is relatively less possibly 10-25 billion since most of the technology will have been developed by phase 1. This will take 5 years to deploy and get up and running all the gear we need on mars to establish the colony.
Phase 3 is the transport phase
Simple enough. Send people. 9 months. Ending with mans occupation of Mars hopefully forever.
Phase 4 is the occupation phase
This phase we will work to make the colony self-sufficient. Bring other people, work with the people on mars to solve problems and evolve our ability to survive.
The US space program is rudderless and spending vast amounts of money largely on things that do very little. We need to seriously re-invigorate the Zubrin plan and goal to bring a purpose to the space effort both for success and because of the value of the goal itself. Creating a second colony for humans.
Most of the risk is in Phase 1 which means if we figure out we are wrong and we can’t occupy mars we can still use what we develop for other goals or for projects on earth. We can continue to develop the technology for colonization over 50 years if we need to.
What we have to do:
Lift Cost Reduction
Lift Cost: $70M/28,990 lbs = $2,400/lb
Amount that needs to be lifted: 50,000,000 lbs
(The ISS is about 1,000,000lbs) and cost $150 Billion
Cost = $100 billion in lift cost at current costs, $25 B if Elon can create reusable rocket. The most important factor in the cost and time to success is reducing lift cost. Elon is squarely focused on that even if the US government isn’t. Thank you, Elon. There are a lot of people who support you.
For doing things remotely. We need more autonomy in robots. We need more flexible robots which can do many things. We need to be able to repair robots remotely. We need to spend $1B/year on robotics technologies and associated robotic control systems and software. This can largely be done on earth and benefits humanity as well here on earth.
One of the most interesting questions. How many people do you need to send? Science Fiction books have speculated first colonies at 5 to 100 people or more. Consider that you will need experts in agriculture, biology, genetics, radiation, all the sciences you can imagine as well as people who can do labor and manage, handle the politics. I suspect a minimum colony is 15 or 20.
Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson is a series of science fiction books talking about the colonization and eventual aero-forming of Mars. It is a fascinating and spellbinding set of books that take you through many realistic issues that colonists and the Earth would face. He suggests 100 people. I highly recommend these books.
Factories / Manufacturing / Materials
We need to be able to separate materials in martian soil and to have available or create what we need to be able to manufacture various materials needed for life support, habitat building and to innovate on mars if needed to try new materials, new techniques. We will need microscopes and various machines for performing experiments and the materials needed for those experiments. We know practical materials today for most of this but developing lighter weight easy to manufacture on Mars materials will be better. Since it is so expensive to send stuff to mars eventually it will make sense for us to send stuff so they can be self-sufficient and manufacture almost everything they need there.
Water, food, air, waste disposal and reclamation, climate control.
Living on the surface of mars is an issue especially if it is intended to be years and maybe permanently. There must be enough materials and space to sustain failures and to allow for growth of the colony. Fortunately, all the basics are on Mars already. It has water, oxygen and all we need to live but it must be managed carefully.
Space to grow, seeds, animals, fertilizer, soil, lighting, heat, climate. We have virtually no experience doing this but also no reason to believe we can’t do it.
Supplies, medical equipment, test equipment. Much of this will probably be difficult to manufacture on Mars so will have to be sent initially.
Transportation and Radiation Protection
En-route – what is needed? What material ? How to build a space ship that can shield and yet be light enough to be cost effective to transport the colonists.
On surface – trucks, aircraft, buggies, vans, earthmoving, high speed travel, trucks for moving.
autonomous travel vehicles.
How big, how protected? Underground? Domes viable? Can they be constructed on site? How does the colony grow its space?