Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Choosing A New Home For Humanity

There five important factors for long term human space colonization:

Resources - humans need certain kinds of resources to survive and continue a technological civilization: carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, silicon, metals. We also need energy: solar, nuclear, or geothermal.

Accessibility - this is what people often mean when you say "gravity well". How much energy does it cost to get there or leave there? Imagine you live on your own personal island. Sure, it's quiet and there's no neighbors to annoy you, but if you don't have fuel for your helicopter or a nice speedboat your economic sphere of influence will be significantly constrained.. much as we are down here on Earth.

Radiation Protection - also, down here on Earth, we have an atmosphere that protects us from the harsh solar and galactic cosmic radiation, but just about everywhere else in the solar system we're going to have to make do with a more substantial physical barrier - either thick metal plates or, more likely, a couple of meters of dirt.

Gravity - we evolved in a 1g gravity field and all the evidence we have so far indicates that we may indeed need that much gravity - particularly for having offspring. Perhaps we can get by with less, but there's no evidence for that yet.

Technology - this basically comes down to when we go. Our current technological capabilities are insufficient to get beyond cislunar space. Soon we should be able to go anywhere in the inner solar system. Eventually, we'll be able to go anywhere in the solar system and then it'll just be down to delta-v requirements. Some day, the stars.

So let's consider the possibilities. To give an objective analysis of the suitability of each destination I'll adopt a scoring system where 2 points are awarded if something is particularly favorable and comes as an inherit part of the destination. If some application of existing or near-future technology is required then a score of only 1 point will be awarded. I wont score the technological requirements to reach the destination as we will only be considering destinations that are reachable with current or near-future technology.

Score: 1 Res, 0 Acc, 2 Rad, 2 Gra = 5.

Although we're talking about a new home for humanity, I think scoring our current home is a good way to show the motivation to leave it. We certainly had plenty of resources on this planet, but there's also a heck of a lot of us on it now and the availability of those resources is starting to dwindle. The accessibility of Earth is the worst in the inner solar system.. it takes so much delta-v to get off it that we have to use multi-staged rockets. The radiation protection is exquisite, and so is the gravity.

Orbital Habitats
Score: 0 Res, 2 Acc, 0 Rad, 1 Gra +1 Zero-G Bonus = 4.

The traditional O'Neill Colony, Clarke Wheel, or even the ISS imports all its resources. Of course, the accessibility is great but as a result of the high cost of import there's few materials to use for effective radiation shielding. Artificial gravity can be provided, and the easy access to zero-g is a bonus to scientific work.

Score: 1 Res, 1 Acc, 1 Rad, 0 Gra = 3.

The Earth's Moon is often considered a barren destination with little in the way of resources. This picture has been disputed over the years with many people pointing out the wide availability of metals, silicon and oxygen in the lunar regolith. Recently, the discovery of a water cycle on the Moon and the expectation that there may be as much carbon as there is hydrogen firmly busts the "desolation" myth. That said, it certainly will be a lot of hard work to live there. The accessibility is poor, but not nearly as bad as Earth. Radiation protection would be of the underground variety. The gravity is terrible for human reproduction and there's nothing we can do about it.

Score: 1 Res, 0 Acc, 2 Rad, 2 Gra = 5.

Colonizing the surface of Venus is mostly out of the question due to the surface temperature and pressure (460C and 93 atm). Although it may be possible to colonize Venus with platforms floating in the upper atmosphere, the only resources available would be the toxic atmosphere and anything you can collect, with great expense, from the surface. And the gravity well is almost as bad as the Earth. Radiation protection from the atmosphere alone would be same as Earth, but the magnetic field is much weaker. Venus also has another thing going for it: it's the only body other than Earth in the inner solar system which has a near-one gravity.

Score: 2 Res, 1 Acc, 1 Rad, 0 Gra = 4.

Mars is almost universally considered the premier destination for human expansion into the solar system. The reasoning is that it has a sidereal and geological similarity to Earth. So we can expect the resources to be abundant, and getting at them will be a similar experience to getting at them on Earth. The gravity is under half of that of Earth which means the accessibility is pretty good. The radiation protection requirements places all infrastructure for living and industry underground. The weak gravity also means that having offspring there may be impossible.

Asteroids etc
Score: 2 Res, 2 Acc, 1 Rad, 1 Gra +1 Zero-G Bonus = 7.

The near Earth asteroids, the moons of Mars and the asteroid belt are the most abundant resources in the inner solar system. Getting to them and moving between them is the easiest, in terms of energy, of all the alternatives. Radiation protection is available simply by digging into them which, considering the average density of most the asteroids we know about, could be done by robotic precursor missions or even by hand if necessary. Using rotating habitat structures, or even just a simple train driving around an endless loop of track, a full artificial gravity can be provided to the colonists. The easy access to zero gravity is also a bonus to industry.


The question of how much gravity humans need to produce healthy offspring must be answered before we can seriously discuss the colonization of the solar system. If it turns out that we need a full Earth gravity then it really does rule out most destinations until some future technology is developed to overcome it. To my mind, this question should be the primary focus of human adaptability experiments on the ISS and elsewhere in space. For example, a new short arm centrifuge module should be under production to be used for full gestation small mammal testing. Beyond the ISS, the planned robotic lunar landers should carry microarray experiments to test the affect of reduced gravity on human cells. If the expressed protein sequences are sufficiently similar to terrestrial control results then we can say with some confidence that reduced gravity is worth future study - such as landing a full gestation mammal testing module on the Moon.

Special thanks to Dr Jim Logan for inspiring the scoring system.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Lifeboat Politics

There's another approaching train wreck with the Orion Crew Rescue Vehicle, or "lifeboat" as it is starting to be called. For a start, Lockheed Martin is saying it will cost $4.5 billion to develop.. others are saying more like $6 billion and it won't be ready until 2013.. others are saying 2015. For comparison, that's 9 to 12 times as much as SpaceX has spent on everything that they have done. There's no word yet on how much each Orion Lifeboat will actually cost or what it will be launched on.

Orbital Sciences has smelled the blood in the water and is attacking. They think they can do it for cheaper.. no word on faster. Back in 2009, Elon Musk stood in front of the Augustine committee and suggested that his company SpaceX could deliver a lifeboat capability shortly after the first few cargo flights were completed.. that would most likely be early 2012. No price was given but it would most certainly be funded under COTS-D and that's only $300 million.

More importantly, no-one has made public statements of how long the endurance would be on these lifeboats. The original proposal for the Orion spacecraft called for an endurance of 210 days. The SpaceX DragonLab specifications indicate that version of the Dragon vehicle can stay on-orbit for 2 years. Orbital Sciences has yet to specify an endurance for their Cygnus spacecraft. The Sierra Nevada Dreamchaser may be available by 2014 but there's no word yet on its endurance. The Boeing capsule CST-100 will not be designed to stay in space for long periods of time ruling it out of the lifeboat competition. This means they'll have to rely on someone else's lifeboat if they're going to carry long duration crews to the ISS, but there's plenty of short duration missions that a cost effective vehicle could do.

To me, the primary data point for evaluating a lifeboat is how long it can stay on-orbit. The Soyuz is the best lifeboat available and has a 6 month endurance. The Shuttle can't operate as a lifeboat at all, with a mere 14 day endurance. If SpaceX can really beat the Soyuz by 18 months that's a massive enabling capability for full utilization of the International Space Station and should be brought online as soon as possible. If the Orion Lifeboat can only beat the Soyuz by 1 month is that worth $4.5 billion?

Another Kind Of Shuttle Extension

To many advocates of extending the Space Shuttle, the most important thing is jobs. They'll tell you about how the crew at the United Space Alliance are doing such a fantastic job and it would be a shame to lose this national asset. Which is funny because, back in 2004 when the Shuttle retirement decision was made, we were told that the workforce is aging, retiring, and unable to get new blood.

However, a rare few who advocate Shuttle extension do so because they strongly appreciate the capability of the Shuttle, and cite Hubble servicing missions as the greatest demonstration of these. I, for one, think this capability can be better served by more cost effective means: building satellites so they are roboticly serviceable to begin with, or the robotic/manned options for Dragon presented by Max Vozoff in March.

But it is interesting to think about how one might utilize the orbiters once they retire. The current plans are to ship them to museums and stare at them in wonder.. that seems like a shame. Richard Godwin and Dennis Wingo have suggested that the orbiters could be "retired on-orbit". Maintaining their capability. They are undeterred by the long list of retrofits that would be required to make this workable, and maybe even a little naive, but I have to give them credit because they actually recognize the problems of the Shuttle's on-orbit endurance.

Friday, June 25, 2010

And Now Buzz Aldrin

Buzz Aldrin has been interviewed on his Space Czar commandments and found to support the myth of The Gap.

"Meanwhile, I also very strongly suggest that instead of retiring the shuttles [in late 2010] and buying rides with the Russians for five, six, or seven years to get to our $100 billion space station, a highly undesirable situation, we stretch out the flights of the five remaining shuttle orbiters to 2015."

Five remaining shuttle orbiters? Really?

I simply don't get why people are so set on framing the debate of Shuttle extension as an alternative to buying seats on the Soyuz. As has been said before: the problem isn't boldly going, it is boldly staying. The Shuttle can't do that with its 14 day on-orbit endurance. So even if you keep flying the Shuttle you're still going to have to buy a couple of Soyuz every 6 months to use as lifeboats.. or wait for Orion CRV to be ready.. should be around 2015.

I thought Buzz got this and he was only advocating for Shuttle extension to build his cycler.. apparently suggesting continuing the Shuttle to do a task the Shuttle does "well" - on orbit assembly - isn't good enough anymore. I guess everyone wants to pile on the Russia bashing.

The Gap Myth

Clara Moskowitz has published an article that tries to dispel a half dozen myths about the new space policy. Rand Simberg published an article back in May which tried to do the same. Whenever I read these articles I tend to see more myth usage than busting. As I've tried to articulate before, there's a lot of misunderstanding of the so-called "Gap" which neither of these articles bust.

No discussion of Shuttle retirement makes sense if you don't mention two important things:

  • The Soyuz has always been the vehicle used to rotate crews to the ISS as it has to act as a lifeboat - something the Shuttle can't do with it's 14 day on-orbit endurance.
  • Ares I/Orion was supposed to be ready when the expedition crew size went from 2 to 6. It was clear it wasn't going to be, so NASA bought more seats on Soyuz which upped the required production of Soyuz, which increased the average price per seat.
It should be clear, the myth here is that The Gap has much to do with Shuttle at all. Suppose the Shuttle had kept flying and Ares I/Orion had continued to be the train wreck that it is, how would that change the situation? Well, it wouldn't. NASA would still need to buy more Soyuz vehicles because they need lifeboats for the increased crew size on the station. Remember, the Shuttle can't act as a lifeboat.

As a result of this framing of The Gap we get people calling for Shuttle extension without explaining how that would solve the lifeboat shortage. I should say, not everyone misunderstands The Gap, I've had discussions with people who suggest such things as buying Soyuz vehicles and launching them in the Shuttle cargo bay as on-orbit backups. It's not a great idea, as the Soyuz only has a 6 month endurance, but it at least recognizes what the real problem is.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Russian Failure

Sen John Glenn (ret) recently made a very well written, very in-depth statement about space policy. Compared to what other retired astronauts have been saying or suggesting, Glenn sounds outright prescient. I would like to address just one part of Glenn's statement.

Russian Failure: And what happens if there is a failure of the usually reliable Soyuz? Just a couple of years ago, they had two reentry mishaps that took them over normal G limits and some 400 miles from their intended landing point. A grounded Soyuz would leave us with no access to the ISS. I presume the crew on board would have to come down by the so-called "lifeboat" Soyuz currently docked at the ISS. With no access, could the station even be abandoned, eventually to reenter the atmosphere in uncontrolled pieces, landing wherever?

I find this very poor thought out and, compared to the rest of the statement, that is strange. As Glenn says earlier "The Shuttle first flew in late 1981 with its greatly expanded research and heavy lift capability (e.g., Hubble), but with a flight duration limit of 14 days." So I can't understand how Glenn can honestly suggest that the Shuttle should be extended just in case of Soyuz-denial.

I have heard many Senators, commentators, and people who I think are smart and honest, say that being dependent on Soyuz is a threat to the US national security. The theory is that Russia could deny access to the ISS if the US doesn't bend on important national security issues. Ignoring the fact that this is a fear tactic pulled straight out of the 1960s, does it actually make sense?

Imagine the US was no longer able to buy seats on the Soyuz for whatever reason, be it political or safety as Glenn suggests. Imagine that the Shuttle was still flying too. Sure, the US would have "access" to the ISS via the Shuttle - for a maximum of 10 days at a time. It takes 2 days to get to the station and 2 days to get home and, as Glenn says, there's a limit of 14 days.

However, the ISS requires a permanent human presence to keep running. Since late 2000 there has always been a cosmonaut and an astronaut on the ISS. They spend most their time doing maintenance tasks to keep the station flying. Without a permanent human presence the ISS will stop working, become uninhabitable, and deorbit into the ocean - just like MIR did when it was abandoned.

The Shuttle simply cannot be used to rotate crews to the ISS as it is unable to stay at the station and act as a lifeboat for long duration crews. Perhaps the in-development Orion Crew Rescue Vehicle may actually make sense if Shuttle extension was to go ahead, as it would address the lifeboat issue. Without it, the US will remain dependent on the Soyuz for lifeboat use and that doesn't make sense from either a political or safety Soyuz-denial perspective.

In short, if you're for Shuttle extension as a check to Soyuz-denial, you have to be for Orion CRV, and I haven't heard of anyone that is for Orion CRV except for the politicians and the contractors who will be receiving that pork.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Artificial General Intelligence

For a period in 2008 I was working on the OpenCog project. I left the project due to the lack of engineering competency and leadership displayed by the group (not to mention a few personality clashes), but I still think the work of Dr Ben Goertzel, that we were trying to implement, is fundamentally sound. I do, however, wonder how many people actually get what it is all about. There's so many buzzwords and excessive focus on statistics and logic and all those messy details that I think the underlying simplicity of the mechanism isn't being communicated. So here's my attempt.

The primary distinction between AGI and more "specialized" AI is the idea that the system should be able to solve problems which are not necessarily formally specified. And this is so important that I'm going to give an example.

You are a farmer taking his dog, a chicken and a sack of grain to market and you come across a river. The only way across the river is by a small boat, which can only hold at most you and one of the three items. Left unsupervised, the chicken will eat the grain or the dog will eat the chicken (however, the dog won't try to eat the grain, nor will the dog or the chicken wander off). What's the quickest way to get everything across the river?

It's a Standard Puzzle which I'm sure you've heard. There are existing AI systems that can solve problems like this, but they need the problem to be restated in a formal way, such as:

[[F S], [D S], [C S], [G S]] = START
[[F a], [D _], [C !a], [G !a]] = FAIL
[[F a], [D !a], [C !a], [G _]] = FAIL
[[F E], [D E], [C E], [G E]] = GOAL
!S = E
!E = S
move([[F a], [D a], [C _], [G _]], W) = [[F !a], [D !a], [C _], [G _]]
move([[F a], [D _], [C a], [G _]], C) = [[F !a], [D _], [C !a], [G _]]
move([[F a], [D _], [C _], [G a]], G) = [[F !a], [D _], [C _], [G !a]]

A formal problem like this can be driven from the START state to the GOAL state without hitting a FAIL state. This is one of those problems that can be easily formalized. There are many problems which cannot be - consider anything where the world changes dynamically, or where there is uncertainty about the current state of the world.

Solving a problem like this and more complicated problems requires sophisticated analysis, like that found in the Soar architecture, which is a kind of goal-directed reasoning. Essentially, to make progress towards a goal you need to consider what options are available and which of them are more likely to lead you to the goal. Achieving a goal may require the creation of sub-goals which can be achieved sequentially or in parallel.

In a formal system, the options are explicitly specified and may even have priorities associated with them that tell the system which are more likely to result in achieving the goal - or at least stop it from going around in circles trying things that don't work - but for an AGI the evaluation of the options available has to be done by experimentation or a statistical observation of previous attempts. For an AGI, the options may even be unspecified all together and have to be built from more primitive options until they are at the appropriate level of detail (and abstraction) to be able to be used to accurately predict how well they will improve the likelihood of achieving a goal.

And so we start to see how we might build an AGI. We need something labeled as the goal and a measurement of how "achieved" it is. We need sub-goals which offer guarantees about how much they will improve the achievement of their super-goals when they are achieved. We need some strategies for allocating processor and memory resources to goals. We need a system where goals can reallocate those resources to "tasks" which will enact options that have been predicted to improve the achievement of the goal.

I've been saying things like "predict" and "statistical observation" like they're no big thing, but these are probably the hardest parts of any intelligent system. There's a lot of different ways to do it, some better than others, and making an architecture that can support many of them, and choose between them for different problems, is a grand challenge.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why Human Spaceflight?

If you're a space geek like me you've probably had people ask you why we're "wasting money in space", and typically just like that, in the most impolite way possible.

The Justifications


Most people who ask this question are not talking about unmanned spaceflight. It seems that "science" is more than enough justification for just about any planetary probe, earth monitoring satellite or Mars rover, but human spaceflight is astronauts playing around on the taxpayer's dime. Because of this, I often hear NASA trying to link human spaceflight to science. We're told astronauts on the International Space Station are doing important scientific work, in particular biological study into zero-g protein crystal growth that will lead to cures for fatal diseases, or something. We're supposed to imagine astronauts with (space) test tubes and (space) microscopes floating around doing Important Work which makes the billions and billions of dollars, rubles, euros and yen that have been spent to build the station and maintain it.

This is what I call a "justification" for human spaceflight. The ISS wasn't designed and built to do protein crystal growth. If you ask NASA what human spaceflight is for you'll sooner or later get a long laundry list of "spinoffs" like this, including quite a few dubious inventions that NASA either had nothing to do with or at most provided some research funding, and many more that are very difficult to link to the human spaceflight program. Spinoffs are the ultimate justification as they are by definition not the reason why we do human spaceflight - they're searched for or simply made up after that decision has already been made to justify why human spaceflight should continue.

International Cooperation

Around 1993 the Space Station Freedom was saved from cancellation by the Clinton administration to serve as a model of "international cooperation" between the US and Russia. The idea was that giving Russia something to do in space would keep them busy and stop their highly skilled workforce from defecting to Iran and other states to make missiles. Since then, International Cooperation (and yes, I have to use capital letters) has become more than just controlling the missile building talent of the world - today it's more about world leadership. The concept is often referred to as "soft power" and the theory goes that other countries will look to the US as a great way to run their own country because of all the great things NASA does in space. If that sounds like something someone made up on the spot, well....


Then finally, there's probably the real reason why NASA keeps doing human spaceflight: Pork. For anyone who doesn't "get" human spaceflight, the costs involved in launching the Space Shuttle or all the money that has been spent on the ISS look impossibly huge. Just in-case you're unaware, the average cost of a shuttle flight is about a billion dollars, and estimates of the total cost of the ISS over 30 years range from 35 billion dollars to 160 billion dollars, depending on who you talk to. At the time of writing this there's a fight going on at NASA over whether or not to cancel a rocket called the Ares I which has cost 9 billion dollars so far and, if it continues, will cost up to 30 billion dollars, again, depending on who you talk to. It's almost been decided that the capsule that was to go on top of the Ares I but will now be turned into a crew escape vehicle for the ISS, called the Orion CEV, will cost at least 4.5 billion dollars. It looks like a lot of money, but compared to the overall NASA budget and how many years it is stretched over, it's not really a lot.. I worked out once that the average US taxpayer pays $10/month for everything that NASA does.. but if you were the sales executive at the company that won that contract it sure would be a lot to you. And your company sure wouldn't mind paying a campaign contribution to your Congressman as a thank you for "bringing home the bacon".

But these are not acceptable answers... The truth tells us why NASA keeps doing human spaceflight but it doesn't tell us why they should be doing human spaceflight. To answer that we have to ask some of the big minds who have inspired many of us in the space community.

High Concepts


Carl Sagan was the undisputed best communicator the space advocacy community ever had. His series Cosmos was broadcast in 60 countries to over 500 million people. He founded the Planetary Society to continue his advocacy of astronomy and exploration. His hallmark was in expressing the overwhelming vastness of the cosmos and our insignificant role in it. In a word, Sagan's followers were in it for the "wonder". The universe is a beautiful place full of fascinating things and is available to anyone who looks up at night (assuming you live far enough away from city light pollution).

Notably, Sagan was a strong advocate of robotic exploration of the solar system. He arranged experiments and was responsible for the plaques on the Voyager probe which carried a message out of the solar system in the hope that it may one day be picked up by extraterrestrial intelligence. He strongly advocated for the SETI program too, and strongly advocated against the Space Shuttle and International Space Station. So it might seem a little strange that I would bring him up, but plenty of Sagan's followers are advocates of human spaceflight; why?

To many, Sagan's dismissal of human spaceflight became indefensible in 1993 when the crew of the Space Shuttle Endeavour mission STS-61 performed the first servicing mission of the Hubble Space Telescope. Here was the most powerful optical telescope ever built, floating in space with a flawed mirror, providing only fuzzy wonder, and then humans came along and made it good. All of a sudden the public was flooded with fantastic images of distant galaxies and other wonders of the cosmos. The human spaceflight program now had a purpose and four servicing missions later the Hubble Space Telescope is still delivering the wonder.

This caused more Sagan followers to reassess their dismissal of human spaceflight. They started asking astronauts: what's it like up there? and actually waiting around for the answer. Unsurprisingly the answer is full of wonder. Frank White's famous book "The Overview Effect" describes the transcendental feeling of universal connection with the Earth and the cosmos that astronauts report after seeing the Earth from space. Today, the suborbital spaceflight market counts it as one of their deliverables, along with the wonder of zero gravity.

In short: space is awesome, let's go there.


Wernher von Braun was a German missile maker who surrendered to the US at the end of WWII and was shipped with his team to live in New Mexico to build more missiles. He was also a visionary but no-one in the military really cared about that stuff. In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first man made satellite into space, it was called Sputnik. Although this was not anything the US couldn't do and was only a minor threat to national security, it was a major blow to "prestige". During the height of the cold war, countries around the world were looking to the Soviet Union as a model for how to run their economies. The US didn't like this and felt that as more countries went "red" the inevitability of hostilities with the Soviet Union drew closer and closer. In launching Sputnik the Soviet Union was saying to the world: we're better than the US, you can be better too, just do things our way.

The answer, of course, was for the US to launch their own satellite, an American satellite. Only problem was, the only people they had available that could make it happen were Germans. Soon after, the Soviet Union started launching dogs and then humans into space. The US was way behind.

Fundamentally, the problem was that the US didn't have enough people studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM for short). Without increased STEM education the US would become a backwater. But if kids don't want to enroll in STEM classes, what can you do? You can't force them. That'd be something the Soviet Union would do. The answer? "Inspiration".

Project Apollo soon followed and if you ask just about anyone at NASA or in the aerospace community, you will discover that they were very inspired by Apollo. Today, the younger generation will tell you that they were inspired by the awesome sight of a Space Shuttle launch, or they went to Space Camp when they were a kid. The point is, inspiring these kids to enroll in STEM education pushes forward not just space technology but all technology. It's like the spinoffs argument but even more indirect - not only can NASA take credit for inventions they threw some research dollars at, they can also take credit for anything where the inventor was inspired to STEM education by spaceflight. And what's more, all these STEM educated people are important for the National Security, so human spaceflight is important for National Security. See how it works?

Wernher von Braun's dream was to fly humans to Mars. The Mars Society is the embodiment of the dream, and is fueled by the promise of inspiration. Getting to Mars is a Grand Challenge and will require Technological Progress of the Apollo kind, so we can expect lots and lots of inspiration.


Gerard K. O'Neill was a Princeton University physics professor who had applied to be an astronaut but washed out. Following the Apollo Moon landings, public perception of human spaceflight as a pointless endeavor with no payoff was at an all time high, and other contemporary events (like the Vietnam War) had begun to shatter the belief that Technological Progress was a necessarily positive force in the world.

Nevertheless, O'Neill proposed that humans may one-day live and work in space. He assigned engineering tasks on the subject to students and gave lectures around the country. O'Neill saw Space Colonization as the solution to many of the "major problems" of the world that were haunting the nightmares of people who wrongfully believed they could predict the future. In 1972 a book was released which summarized the findings of these alarmists and was widely read in the scientific community. It was called "The Limits To Growth". After arguing in the scientific literature and going on speaking tours for years, O'Neill released his own popular book "The High Frontier".

The consequences of a rapidly growing world population and finite resources was widely accepted fact in the 70s. The affluence of the US would decline as the other nations of the world caught up. For their growing populations they would want coal, and gold and iron and oil.. especially oil. The oil shortage of the 70s was seen as proof. There wouldn't be enough to go around and everyone would have to go without. Everyone believed it. O'Neill believed it. People still believe it today. It's all so hopeless.

O'Neill's answer was eloquent: who says we've only got the one world? The Moon, which the US has just got done conquering, is rich in iron, aluminum, silicon and oxygen. We could go live there! But being a good scientist, and professor, O'Neill famously asked his brightest students: "Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" (Notice the word "expanding").

We all live at the bottom of a well.. a gravity well. The Space Shuttle is so big, and the Saturn V was so much bigger, because our gravity well is so deep that we need to spend 90% of the vehicles mass in fuel just to get the little tiny crew bit into orbit. The Earth's gravity well is so deep that, it is said, once you're in orbit you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system. So, if you've just spent all this fuel (not to mention pain, sweat, tears and astronaut blood) to get out of a gravity well, why should you be so eager to dive back into another one?

The answer is resources, which weighed heavily on everyone's mind in the 70s. If you're going to live in space, with an expanding population, you need resources and all the resources O'Neill knew about were at the bottom of gravity wells. If we don't want to go down into the well, how do we get out the water? err, I mean, resources. Another great question!

The fundamental problem with getting material out of a gravity well isn't lifting it up - the analogy to a water well kind of fails you there - it's giving the resources enough horizontal momentum that they can enter a stable orbit. On the Moon, that velocity is low enough that O'Neill figured a high speed train could achieve it. The train would be magnetically levitated about the track and the resources would be hurtled into orbit in steady stream. Then a big catcher's mitt would grab the resources and deliver them to a stable point in space where the colony was being built. When completed, the massive colony would spin to provide artificial gravity. Housing 10,000.

The colony would be economically self supporting. They could, for example, build satellites and "launch" them, but the primary market that the colony would support would be energy. Remember, to everyone in the 70s it was apparent that the world's oil supply was drying up (this is still apparent to a lot of people today). What would the cars run on when all the oil was gone? Well, electricity seems like a good bet, and there's lots and lots of free electricity available in space in the form of solar power. Beaming power from a space colony down to earth is the fundamental O'Neillian dream. The dream that provides hope.

A Modern Perspective

Carl Sagan's love and wonder for the cosmos is powerful and universal. So long as the scientific spirit of openness continues there will always be marvels for the public to enjoy. The continuing light pollution around cities, while tragic, makes the public appreciation of orbital telescopes even stronger. Human servicing of those telescopes and the sheer marvel of the Earth be it experienced on suborbital spaceflight or future orbital spaceflight will always be valuable.

Wernher von Braun's drive for Grand Challenges to inspire the next generation to continue Technological Progress is, to me, a fundamental part of modern life. There is no problem, great or small, that humanity cannot overcome with the measured application of scientific knowledge and technology.

Gerard K. O'Neill's vision, while grand and exquisite, has always felt to me to be a little too much a reaction to his times. Space Solar Power today has as much relevance to O'Neill as Communication Satellites has to von Braun.. neither are or will be manned as originally envisioned. What's more, the fundamental motivation for O'Neill's work, The Limits To Growth, has been shown to be fundamentally alarmist and, well, wrong* - even if the damage they've done to our hope is permanent, I don't think the same urgency exists today as it did in the 70s and so I'm sad to say that I think O'Neill's solution has been ruled out. So are we destined to travel down a path where Technological Progress is shunned for Conservation and Environmentalism? I hope not.

That said, Gerard K. O'Neill's vision has always had the greatest appeal to me. Over the years it has been slowly changing. The less timeless motivations have been replaced with more timeless ones. Where O'Neill would have said that the Earth is running out of resources, modern commentators prefer to estimate the vast wealth available in space and ask: as soon as it becomes economical won't someone go get it? Similarly, where O'Neill would say solar power can replace oil when it runs out, modern commentators ask: can anyone close the business case for Space Solar Power?

When you start to think like an Economic O'Neillian the vision changes completely. The fundamental motivation for human spaceflight becomes closing the business case. Does mining the Moon make good business sense? Only if there aren't cheaper resources available. In space, cheaper means less delta-v. If you or your resources are at the bottom of a gravity well then you better plan to spend a lot on delta-v. The traditionalist O'Neillian answer is to build a huge infrastructure on the Moon to get the cheapest delta-v possible (which, btw, is a consistent theme in launch hardware), but the Economic O'Neillian looks to other opportunities. The Near Earth Asteroids and Comets (or NEOs), the moons of Mars, and the asteroid belts are interesting opportunities. By choosing to live there you have all the resources you need without the delta-v penalty of getting them to the colony. Building your colony inside the asteroid/comet/Moon gives you radiation protection (the number one issue to long term colonization of space) and still allows you to spin the habitat to produce full artificial gravity (an option you just don't have if you're living on a planetary body without full Earth gravity).

The pure Economic O'Neillians are gaining traction and if they rephrase O'Neill's famous question as "where is the best place for an expanding human civilization?", the answer may end up being: "whereever you can make a living."

* brobof after screaming and yelling at me a lot, informs me that this paper clearly shows that The Limits To Growth was not wrong, and that we really are headed for the kind of global collapse that it predicts. While I'm not going to be turning into another chicken little anytime soon, I retract my comment.

Monday, June 07, 2010

ISDC Tweets

This year I attended ISDC in Chicago. I suffered with the US food and the jetlag, but overall it was an enjoyable experience. My tweets of the event can be broken up into a few categories, note that the times are not Chicago timezone :)

Airports / Jetlag

@jeff_foust I got put on the standby list for the first time ever yesterday. #unitedairlines 10:02 PM May 27th via web

I actually managed to get about 8 hours sleep tonight.. yah jetlag! #isdc 11:03 PM May 29th via web

@dmasten this trip was my first experience of standby. less painful than I would have thought. 12:06 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

@n3ckf who are these mythical people who dont show up to their flight requiring the airline to overbook? 12:58 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

I am on the last leg of my epic voyage home. seems kinda fitting to watch Ulysses 31 eps all the way. 10:10 AM Jun 3rd via mobile web

Dennys / WiFi

Woohoo.. at Dennys. Bless free wifi. ISDC registration in an hour or so. 9:38 PM May 27th via web

@bencredible @cariann tweet when you are awake, if I get it I'm at Denny's :) 10:40 PM May 29th via web

The NSS are providing free wifi.. wonder why that took 2 days. #isdc 11:37 PM May 29th via web

Denny's menu suggests I add a soup or salad. Today's soup: NEW! Signature Chili. How can anything be both new and signature? 9:37 AM May 31st via mobile web

Sparring with Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society

"Paul [Spudis] is the Bob Zubrin of the Moon." - Edward Wright http://www.transterrestrial.com/?p=27060 10:37 PM May 28th via web

What I'd like to ask Zubrin this morning but wont get the chance. #isdc http://bit.ly/bEX7eX 10:32 PM May 29th via web - I met Bob Zubrin shortly after this post and started my conversation with him by saying "heh, I just wrote a blog post of all the things I'd like to ask you but figured I wouldn't get a chance."

@cariann I've been arguing with Bob Zubrin for the last hour, was just about to go find you. We're in the middle selling his books. 1:12 AM May 30th via web

hmm.. I think arguing with Zubrin is a drug.. I'm having withdrawls and it's only been an hour. 2:29 AM May 30th via mobile web

here comes an avalanch of bullshit #isdc 6:08 AM May 30th via mobile web

has anyone not heard this speech? #isdc 6:10 AM May 30th via mobile web

someone did put a time limit on Zubrin right? #isdc 6:13 AM May 30th via mobile web

@bzwingzero its not unusual to agree with Zubrin. it's unusual for Zubrin to be so coherent that you can find something to agree or disagree 6:32 AM May 30th via mobile web

Zubrin just accused the Augustine commission of being fixed. this is why he's an asshole. #isdc 6:51 AM May 30th via mobile web

@mmealling i think there's value in de-Zubrin-ing his arguements. what is the coherent program that the FTDP tech fits into? 7:01 AM May 30th via mobile web

@mmealling Zubrin's question is: are you gunna need it? (I get that from the principle of charity mind you) #isdc 7:47 AM May 30th via mobile web

Ya, know, it's incredibly odd to blog about Bob Zubrin and then have him walk into the room to chat about it 9 minutes later. 11:10 PM May 30th via web

i got Bob Zubrin on camera for @Spacevidcast heh :) 6:25 AM May 31st via mobile web

Bob Zubrin left the conference today with an empty suitcase that was full of books he was selling when I first met him 2 days ago. #isdc 9:46 AM May 31st via mobile web

Whatever session I was in

B.J. Bluth says a Soviet era cosmonaut did >430 days in space, and recovered without incident. I wonder how long it took to recover. 9:18 AM May 28th via web

Narayanan Ramachandran of NASA-Marshall told us of his animal levitation experiments for zero-g. Seemed uninterested in in-space uses. 9:24 AM May 28th via web

I guess when it comes to NASA money in the Masten/Armadillo rivalry there’s plenty to go around http://bit.ly/di0s9s 10:47 PM May 28th via web

Dennis Wingo described a robotic system for building a lunar settlement from lunar materials before humans arrive. #isdc 3:29 AM May 29th via web

it isnt too non-conservative to imagine 100 people per year flying suborbital by 2015. #isdc 2:36 AM May 30th via mobile web

btw.. I am using my "smart" phone.. which runs windows mobile. painful but better than nothing. 2:54 AM May 30th via mobile web

scott pace seems to believe the nasa budget replaces constellation with comm crew. i think the FTDP is. 6:02 AM May 30th via mobile web

so many people want to talk. doubt i will get a chance. #isdc 6:27 AM May 30th via mobile web

please stop giving this crazy lady the microphone. #isdc 6:42 AM May 30th via mobile web - the crazy woman in question started the conference by asking the FAA representative what he would be doing to ensure the safety of NASA crew.. and asked many other way-out questions.

BJ Beth didn't get the mic cause she wasn't called on. dude it's BJ Beth. nasa royalty. #isdc 6:57 AM May 30th via mobile web

i promise not to ask: have you got a rocket yet? #isdc 7:07 AM May 30th via mobile web

scaled is a fantastic aircraft company.. shame they cant just stick to their strengths and buy the rocket motors from XCOR. #isdc 7:29 AM May 30th via mobile web

similarly it's a shame XCOR didn't stick to their strengths and contract the Lynx from Scaled like they did with EZ-Rocket. #isdc 7:31 AM May 30th via mobile web

@rclague oh sure, but it was Scaled's intent to become a rocket shop from day one too. Time will tell if vertical integration is best plan. 11:12 PM May 30th via web - Randall subsequently told me I was an idiot and he was spot on :)

@rclague touché. 6:53 AM May 31st via mobile web

the competition in suborbital tourism is important but I wish the race to market would heat up. #isdc 7:38 AM May 30th via mobile web

@mmealling talk to Jim Logan about his reboot of the asteroid settlement concept. Bit of O'Neill too but spin the habitat not the asteroid. 8:13 AM May 30th via mobile web

@cariann me? disagree with Dewar? never. but I did dis him on the quality of writing in his second book. #isdc 6:27 AM May 31st via mobile web - I just finished suffering through Dewar's latest book The Nuclear Rocket. It's terrible, don't read it. His previous book, To The End Of The Solar System is in my short list of favourites.

Frontiers of Propulsion Science sounds like a fun book. Editor talking now. #isdc 7:15 AM May 31st via mobile web

quantum-vacuum thruster talk was surprisingly interesting once the scatterbrain speaker got to the meat. #isdc 9:32 AM May 31st via mobile web

"scatterbrain" was referring to William Scott Pace - his word not mine. 12:03 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

now I am wondering why solar sails have yet to be identified for the FTDP. #isdc 12:21 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Like an inaccessible jewel it will beacon us. #isdc 12:29 AM Jun 1st via mobile web - Marc Millis referring to an Earth-like exo-planet.

http://www.centauri-dreams.org/ quick someone tell us how terrible it is. #isdc 12:35 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Marc Millis wants to hear about peer reviewed articles on hyperspace etc but please no crackpots. #isdc 12:50 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

@chris_radcliff not sure where this is going. :) #isdc 1:05 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

can you make Casimir forces repulsive? can you turn them on and off? Pinto #isdc 1:32 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

wow Pinto waffles.. just tell us what you have achieved already. #isdc 1:38 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Pinto has 10 minutes left and is rushing to the end but has told us nothing relevant to this conference. interesting but irrelevant. #isdc 1:43 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Pinto may be talking about work now that is relevant but hasn't been done yet. #isdc 1:49 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Pinto says repulsive Casimir forces have been demonstrated a number of times but always for pairs. #isdc 1:56 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Will Scott Pace waffling to Pinto now. Hurts me cause I know what he wants to ask but cant. #isdc 1:58 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

the ineptitude of presenter+laptop at conferences baffles me. complete lack of practice I guess. :) #isdc 2:39 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

"this is the first generation of kids growing up with no starry night sky." due to light pollution. Presenter is almost crying. #isdc 2:44 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Halfway through the Light Pollution talk the speaker starts using the Light At Night term. #isdc 3:04 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

so far less than 10 people have shown up for the final session of #isdc proof maybe your conf is a bit too long? :) 3:55 AM Jun 1st via mobile web

Select people at #isdc have been shown a video concept of XCOR's orbital vehicle (codename Xerces?) It's wings all the way to orbit and back 11:07 PM Jun 1st via web

Blog posts

More on "Gravity Plating" #isdc http://quantumg.blogspot.com/2010/05/gravity-plating-part-2.html 9:44 AM May 28th via web

Zubrin's radiation exposure number's game. http://quantumg.blogspot.com/2010/05/radiation-exposure-numbers-game.html 10:59 PM May 30th via web

NASA FTDP, find out what it means to me http://quantumg.blogspot.com/2010/05/nasa-ftdp-find-out-what-it-means-to-me.html 11:02 PM May 30th via web

Two new blog posts about #isdc at http://quantumg.blogspot.com/ 11:38 PM May 30th via web

SpaceX to vertical land the Dragon

I had heard on various blogs that Elon Musk mentioned the integration
of the launch escape system into the Dragon capsule again on the
teleconference. I had heard that he even mentioned that using those
same engines the Dragon could one day land like Soyuz does... on land.

But only today did I actually hear what he said myself, and I think
he said a lot more than was reported.

The Falcon 9 flight 1 teleconference [some weird echo at the beginning]

36m34s in:

"Really the significant development item is the launch escape system. I think we've got a very exciting architecture, a new architecture, that hasn't been done before for a launch escape system - which is to build the launch escape engines into the side wall of the capsule. So instead of having sort of this tractor tower that gets discarded about half way through launch, you have these built-in escape engines that are always with you all the way through orbit. And so you have launch escape for a much longer period of time. Through the entire flight as opposed to less than half the flight. You also don't have to worry about discarding the launch escape tower on every mission as you do, for example, in the Ares/Orion approach or historically with the Apollo program or the way the Russians and the Chinese do it. It's certainly a way to do it, but it requires a successful separation of the escape system on every flight, even a
flight that goes perfectly."

Ok, nothing we haven't heard before (there was an interview with CNBC where Musk said basically the same stuff.. ), but then the new stuff:

37m40s in:

"And the other advantage of having the engines built into the Dragon spacecraft is that we can in the future land propulsively using those same engines, on land - just as the Eagle landed on the Moon - and I think that's really the right way to land a spaceship, and that's what we intend to do."

as God and Robert Heinlein intended.. :)