Re: "NASA Ends Project Intended to Replace Shuttle"

From: Robert J. Bradbury (
Date: Sun Mar 11 2001 - 09:45:06 MST

I think the article about the X-33 & X-34 needs to be read carefully.

> Mr. Stephenson announced the end of the X-33 and X-34 programs when they
> failed to qualify for more money in the early rounds of the Space Launch
> Initiative, a five-year, $4.5 billion program begun last year that NASA
> hopes will lead to a second- generation rocket to replace the shuttle. NASA
> invested $205 million in the X-34 under a 1996 contract with the Orbital
> Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., to make a series of supersonic,
> air-launched robot craft to test new technologies. Mr. Stephenson said
> rising costs made this project noncompetitive.

I think you can write this off to an excessively ambitious program and
new ideas since it began. The program probably would have been canned last
fall when the composite fuel tank tests failed had it not been for
the elections. They kept it alive as an illusion and let the
Bush administration take the "blame" (if any) for the hatchet job.

I'm under the impression that the linear aerospike engine tests are
*still* being conducted at Stennis, so something may be salvaged
from the effort. What you should read carefully is the "five-year
$4.5 billion program" that was begun under the *Clinton* administration,
hasn't been axed by the Bush administration (at least to my knowledge).

So you may see the whole effort re-cast under some new programs without
the fuel tank, but with the aerospike engine. Now, if they combine
that with some more up-to-date concepts like in-air fueling of
the oxygen tanks at high altitude (liquify in the air over a
several hour cruise time), then you may see get a decline in launch costs.

Now, regarding the building of space infrastructure, I don't think
the self-assembling ideas are what is needed to be moved foward. The
development of "self-assembling" matter is very difficult.
This is ever going to happen if you rely on government for
it or the Mars society for it -- those visions are simply missing
or wrong. The Planetary Society is showing however that it can
implement "private" efforts into space. There are several other
small scale efforts by private groups to get into space.

What you need are things that capture the imagination of the public
and are affordable *by* the public. I can suggest two of these --

a) An initiative for mounting user-operated telescopes *on* the
   space station. Lots of people can afford 8-12 inch telescopes
   and volume production of CCD based cameras is driving the megapixel
   camera costs very low. What is needed is cut-rate pricing to
   send these up to the space station and get them mounted and connected
   into the network. I imagine there are lots of universities and
   amateur astronomers that would want to participate in something
   like this. Once all the space on the space station is used up,
   you may still have significant demand to drive the expansion of
   the space station (something you currently do not have).
   This gives the astronauts up there a real "job" by turning
   them into telescope installation and maintenance engineers
   (rather than overpaid and overqualified laboratory technicians).

b) Once you figure out how to get "affordable" small-scale public
   projects into space, promote the idea of micro-scale manufacturing
   facilities... The design of a small scale robotic "refinery"
   should not be *that* difficult -- something that weighs 1-10 kg
   at the most. You want some small solar panels, an ion drive,
   a communications dish, a CPU and probably a mass-spec based
   refinery system. You then get people to sign up for the
   "mass-production" of thousands of these. You launch them into
   space piggybacked on other flights and send them out to
   nearby asteroids where they proceed to "set-down" and start
   refining the materials into 100% pure metals. [The asteroid
   search surveys are cataloging thousands of these, so you have
   plenty of targets to pick from.]
   Now you have access to cheap raw materials in space (avoiding
   the $$$ launch costs [you may be able to refuel your ion drive from
   the asteroid]). You should target asteroids that after a few orbits
   orbits by the Earth or the asteroid come back into positions
   such that a relatively simple launch from the asteroid to transfer
   materials back to the ISS is feasible). If you have 10,000 10 kg
   satellites returning 1 kg of material per year you can have a
   population growth rate of 10% annually.

   Once these start returning very pure raw materials at low cost
   to the ISS where they can be processed into additional satellites
   NASA has an incentive for adding an "assembly line" facility to the ISS.
   You start simple with a facility that can simply melt and recast aluminium,
   then move up to making solar cells, then ion drives, etc. The high-value
   added parts (perhaps the IC's for the CPU and radio-telemetry
   are ferried up in batches from the Earth).

   To make this work, the individuals have to "own" their refineries
   (this seems logical given the "ownership" of current satellites). This
   has to be extended slightly so that you own the materials you harvest
   (this might be a bit tricky -- did NASA "own" the moon rocks?). Clearly
   after paying the child-refinery assembly costs you should "own" the
   largely-space-produced and assembled refineries. You may need some
   interesting spins on liability issues -- if your refinery sets down
   on top of someone elses refinery and damages it you are liable --
   that would seem to promote cooperation on public statements of what
   you intend to harvest. Since I believe current U.N. treaties prevent
   "claiming" ownership of something in space this might work to your
   advantage by making this all first-come-first-served. The race
   is then on...

So what is really missing here is micro-scale refinery satellites.
Most of the technologies for this exist -- steal the communications
hardware from the past/future Mars missions, the ion drive exists,
the solar arrays exist, LLNL has a very small scale mass-spec machine
that can probably be turned into the refinery. The software for
space navigation and semi-autonomous operation exists.

I don't see any major show stoppers. What is required is getting
a dozen or so University groups interested in doing the design and
testing. Once that is done, you can get someone like Ball Aerospace
or Lockheed to do the large-scale manufacturing. (As PC's have shown
manufacturing things in bulk makes them cheap). Then you get the
Planetary Society to market them to its membership. You can probably
get banks and insurance companies to come up with loans and insurance
policies secured by the value of the materials to be harvested.

Once it gets going, it becomes self-improving. You get new operating
systems for the refineries making them more autonomous, you get
increased demand for more sophisticated manufacturing facilities
at the ISS followed by the need to manufacture and assemble
components on the asteroid (e.g. a refinery returning to an
asteroid from the ISS could take back 10 refinery CPU-"cores" and
add onto them the solar panels, communications antenna, and other
simple things "on-site". Once you have eliminated the launch costs,
consortiums of Space-Refinery pioneers will band together to fund the
manufacture of space hotels. By that time, you will probably have mature
nanotech and so the personal Earth-to-Space travel costs should be minimal.

The path seems pretty clear to me once you get out of the framework
of using planetary-based materials.


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