The Future is Not Written in Stone

By dennis_wingo
May 5, 2002
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Special to SpaceRef.com by Dennis Wingo

Last night I watched an episode of Star Trek Voyager. Voyager to me represents the best of the Star Trek series. The ship is really beautiful, powerful, and crewed by a real motley bunch. They are stuck 70,000 light years from Earth and are trying to get home. Can you possibly imagine the great leap of imagination that put a group of humans that far from home? Even more amazing, they make it home as we all know now.

The entire Star Trek universe is one of a positive vision of the future. Yes we have problems but we can (and in their history) have overcome them. However, in real life history is not so definitive nor are we guaranteed that our posterity will cruise the stars going boldly where no human has gone before. There is an old saying that the decisions are made by those who show up. In bringing to life the future it is those who work for it that make it happen.

Today we are in a fight for the future. It is not written in stone. The western civilization that brought forth that vision of a united humanity is a recent phenomenon that really almost did not happen. A thousand years ago both China and the Middle Eastern civilizations were both considerably more advanced. Indeed most of the legacy of Rome and Greece was only preserved in the copies preserved in Arabic. In China mathematics, civil order, and medicine was well beyond that of the west. Our most cherished invention, that of moveable type, is an importation from the east. What happened?

The Moon Program of the 15th Century

In China in the 1400’s, vast treasure fleets set out from the “Middle Kingdom” on a mission that, according to a pillar found to commemorate the event was “to flaunt the might of Chinese power and collect tribute from the barbarians from beyond the seas.” Zheng He, the commander of these fleets was a Eunuch of the court of the Emperor of China.

During his 28 year naval career, Admiral Zheng visited 37 countries, traveled around the tip of Africa into the Atlantic Ocean and commanded a single fleet whose numbers surpassed the combined fleets of all Europe. Between 1405 and 1433, at least 317 ships and 37,000 men were under his command. The flagship of the fleet was a nine-masted vessel measuring 440 feet, nearly 1.5 times the length of a football field.

However, after He’s death a new Ming emperor came to the throne. His scholar-officials criticized Zheng’s achievements, complaining about their great expense. China was now fighting another barbarian enemy on its western borders and needed to devote its resources to that struggle. When a court favorite wanted to continue Zheng He’s voyages, he was turned down. To make sure, the court officials destroyed the logs that Zheng He had kept. We know about his voyages only from the pillar and some accounts that his crew members wrote.

How much different would history be today if Zheng He’s fleet had made it to Portugal, Spain or England?

In the Middle East, Ghengis Khan undid much of the high civilization of the Muslim world. In the late 1200’s the Mongol invasion destroyed Persia and most of Arabia, sparing only Egypt and Turkey. The crusaders from the West also added their measure of destruction. The Turks inherited the mantle of Muslim civilization but did not have the dedication to learning of their predecessors and those lands have lagged technologically until today.

Today we are in a situation somewhat close to that of the Chinese in their century. The new and likely extremely expensive war both drains our treasury and demands the attention of our leaders. In Mr. O’Keefe we now have what we have not had in a very long time at NASA, a court favorite. Mr. O’Keefe is both well connected and well liked in the current administration. He does not yet realize it but there is a very real chance that our future in space rests on his shoulders.

Apollo can be considered the equivalent of the first of the Chinese voyages. The Space Shuttle and now the International Space Station has given us our beach head in the sky. However, what we do now, in the next few years, will determine whether we retain that beach head or retreat from that shore. Mr. O’Keefe has a chance, especially as a court favorite, to seize that beach head, expand it, and secure our foothold in space which is our future.

Today’s Planetary Threats

The threat to our future is not just in our contest with the likes of Osama. Our friends in the environmental movement are rightly concerned with what they call global warming. Recent scientific discoveries make this a more general interest. The pace of discovery in the field of Paleoclimatology (the study of ancient climate) has dramatically increased in the past decade. Scientists from the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded efforts have been examining what are called “proxies” that give us data about ancient climates. What has been found is very disturbing. It has been generally believed that the transitions between Ice Ages to Interglacial warm periods and back to glacial were a gradual process.

Field data from ice cores, ocean floor sediments, and other proxies are showing that transitions from glacial to interglacial can happen in as little as five to twenty years. The end of the last gasp of the last Ice Age called the Younger Dryas happened that fast. The temperature rise was 7°F. Far faster and far worse than any scenario envisioned by the most radical global warming forecasters.

In the book “Ice Chronicles”, Dr. Paul Mayewski, the leader of the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2) makes a chilling statement about the results of their ice core studies. “We are therefore shifting our attention away from “warming” versus “cooling” to “stable” versus “unstable” as a view of climate.

Just six hundred years ago, a fairly dramatic change happened that shifted climate from the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) to the Little Ice Age (LIA). During the MWP, Vikings lived in European style colonies on both the east and west coasts of Greenland, something impossible to do today. Extensive parts of the upper Middle East were inhabited by civilizations such as Petra in regions that are desert today. What would happen to our world civilization if a dramatic shift in temperature like that happened rapidly, either up or down? It would not be pretty either way.

From another direction we also have to worry about the heavens. We know that at some time in the near future we are going to get hit by at least one “city killer” object. It happened at Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. An asteroid of the same size of the one that blew a hole nearly a mile in diameter in Arizona 25,000 years ago flew only 40 miles above Colorado in 1972. Some evidence exists that a small city in China of over 10,000 people was obliterated in the 1400’s. In 1978 an asteroid exploding over the South Atlantic was mistaken for a nuclear weapons explosion by American satellites.

Imagine the result if this happened over an American city today. Carl Sagan once wrote that “the dinosaurs became extinct because they did not have a space program”. Will we make that same mistake?

What’s the Point?

When he became NASA administrator, Sean O’Keefe asked the question, “What’s the point?”, about the space program. It was a deceptively brilliant question. What is the point of the space program today? Where does it fit into the challenges that face the United States and the world today? Is space passe?

For a long time NASA has been adrift, without real leadership. President Reagan tried to instill a vision into NASA with the original Space Station Freedom. However, that vision was diluted to the point to where the only answer that Dan Goldin could give, was “world class science” whatever that means.

George Bush Sr. tried to instill vision into NASA and was rewarded with a $400 billion dollar price tag to go to Mars, which made it dead on arrival in congress. NASA stumbled through the 90’s with slogans like “world class science” and “faster, cheaper, better”. NASA’s Administrator in the 1990’s mouthed epithet’s like “male, pale, and stale” to describe those who took us to the Moon and then spent tens of millions of dollars on a Vice President’s screen saver (Triana).

Yet, even with these problems – and a massive overrun – we now have a real space station in orbit!

Almost everyone is underestimating what it means for us to have a space station in orbit. ISS is our beach head in the sky. It is the initial base that has the potential to take us all the way to the stars. Mr. O’Keefe asked “what’s the point?” That is the point of ISS and why it must be supported.

We must continue to ask “what’s the point?” in terms of opening the space frontier. The nature of a beach head is that it is not a destination – it is a starting point. From that starting point the forces of space development move outward with nothing less than the stars being the eventual destination. The question then becomes, how can we make ISS the best beach head possible and where do we go from there?

One thing that would make such a beach head robust is transportation – but it is only one part of the overall equation. The Space Launch Initiative (SLI) wants to spend billions of dollars to build better and lower cost space transportation to ISS. This is a fine goal. However, that does nothing more than bring more goods to the beach head. There has to be a market at the beach head and beyond or there will be no future no matter how inexpensive launch becomes.

One example of this problem is that the most robust market in space today is communications satellites in GEO. The cost of launch is no more than 1/7 to 1/4 the value of the satellites themselves. How can cutting 50% of that cost make a large difference in the ability to finance them? The answer is that it does not. We have been building commercial comsats in the same way for over 30 years. We need to make strides in lowering the cost of satellites in order to maintain their competitiveness with terrestrial alternatives.

The original Space Station Freedom design had a hangar where large space structures could be assembled in a benign environment. This applied to satellites could allow them to overcome the current limitations associated with solar array size, antenna efficiency, and thermal dissipation.

Another field of endeavor could be technology development and validation. ISS is an ideal platform for the rapid deployment of new computers, software, and subsystem level components such as sensors. However, the current safety process is so difficult, time consuming, and costly, that no one wants to have anything to do with it. The Russian side is much easier but ITAR considerations cripple those efforts.

Enabling the ISS

There are two solutions to this problem. One is to completely revamp the safety and operational process for small payloads. It is time to quit hiding behind the catch-all of ‘safety’. The Russians fly safe payloads to ISS all the time and do it with a minimum of payload developer difficulty. This author has experience with both the Russian and American paths and can validate this.

Another solution would be to declare the ISS an ‘ITAR free zone’ and open the door to the Russians to fly lots of small payloads on short notice as they are able to do. This would allow them to recoup a lot of the costs associated with Progress flights and maybe help them to cover most of their costs to the benefit of the program. Another pathway could be the Alternative Access Program where commercial vehicles could deliver payloads to ISS for the same purposes. The dirty little secret in NASA is that with the dramatic cuts in the microgravity utilization program, there would not be a lot to do for a crew of six or seven. The gap has the potential to be filled by commercial payloads but not the way the current system is set up.

What the above suggestions could do is to start to develop a market which can then drive demand for more services and transportation to ISS. Markets are everything to opening the space frontier – as was the case with opening the western American frontier. If there had been no market on the western side of the North American continent then what would have been the point of the transcontinental railroad?

We have to think about space in a different way than we have over the past 30 years. Since the death of the Apollo program, NASA has been guided in mission and direction primarily by the scientific community. Those of us who have matriculated through a research university know that most scientists only care about their science. How then can they provide a sense of purpose for NASA, which has to be concerned with much broader based concerns?

For over 200 years the U.S. government has served as an ‘investor of last resort’ for public infrastructure programs that private capital cannot or will not fund alone. From the Erie Canal, to the transcontinental railroad of the 19th century to the Panama Canal, the Interstate highway system, and airports of the 20th century, the federal government has funded or aided in the funding of these projects. The government has done this because it has always been the case that the increased economic activity has more than paid back the investment. The problem with the science “uber alles” attitude is that it casts all of the return on investment in intangible terms. For the opening of the beach head in the sky to be expanded upon the returns must be much more tangible in nature.

As such, I suggest an answer to Mr. O’Keefe’s question. The point is that NASA should be about doing what no private entity can do, developing the technologies and infrastructure that enable private enterprise to move into this new environment and start generating economic activity.

In looking at the space frontier in these terms, a different set of NASA space priorities come about. ISS can fit into this different priority set almost at no additional cost: simply implement the Young report recommendations plus revamp the safety and operations segments at JSC and Marshall. O’Keefe’s nuclear initiative is an incredible idea when cast into this new light. Nuclear electric propulsion in its various forms, such as Franklin Chang Diaz’s VASIMR propulsion is a vital new technology for moving people and machines around the inner solar system and beyond.

Beyond Low Earth Orbit

Next would be a crewed space station at GEO orbit, where there are incredible resources to be mined. (i.e. thousands of tons worth of high value metal and manufactured devices of use in a space economy). The nuclear stage could actually be built there as it would answer the anti-nuclear activists concerns in this regard. Chemical propulsion is already mature for transit between GEO and LEO and more politically acceptable.

The crewed station in GEO orbit would be a boon to the satellite industry. Whether or not they admit it, the geo comsat industry is in irreversible decline unless they begin to cut the costs of their systems versus the dramatic decrease in per bit costs of their terrestrial competitors. A crewed station in GEO would allow the construction of large communications platforms with huge satellites that would then become the large fixed pipes for bulk communications around the world. This would actually give a return and a profit on such a station, a fundamental requirement of such a system. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars every ten years to put new weather satellites up in GEO, you could just send up the cameras, change them out or improve them every few years. The numbers do add up when you really open your head up and think about the potential.

J.R. Thompson, former NASA Marshall Center Director once said that if he could only refuel the Shuttle’s disposable External Tank in orbit he could send the Shuttle anywhere in the solar system. Well, a GEO station is only 800 meters per second from trans-Lunar injection, and recent work on weak boundary orbits gives most of the inner solar system for just a little more energy.

A next logical step in the outward movement would be a space station at the Earth/Moon L2 libration point. All of these space stations would use now standardized interfaces and modules from the ISS program. NASA has amortized the development costs there already. The economic benefit of an L2 station is that it would be a way station to the rest of the solar system.

When Roman Legions were traveling across the desert they established way stations where supplies were stored prior to the arrival of their forces. This kept the soldiers from having to tote all their supplies with them. The same thing was done in the winning of the west as outposts supplied the settlers with things they could not carry for themselves. Much of the science missions that NASA wants to do could be done on an extension of the same platforms used in GEO orbit. The Moon would then also become quite accessible to manned missions for prospecting and development of the lunar water resources. These high orbit stations would be ideal for moving large payloads around with the nuclear propulsion systems.

As for robotic probes their missions could be re-prioritized as well. If the goal is to contribute to the tangible betterment of our earth resident population what missions do we now think about? Obviously a serious remote sensing effort from Lunar orbit is necessary. One meter resolution imagery in both visible and radar wavelengths is required. Multiple landers and rovers to do in-situ ground truth studies at multiple locations are required. The Apollo missions really did not even scratch the surface. Would any spacefarer landing on earth at six random spots in the equatorial regions of the earth be able to chart the riches of our planet?

Asteroids: Riches and Dangers

We then need to look outward to completely chart the material resources of the inner solar system. John Lewis, planetary scientist and author of “Mining the Sky”, estimates that there are hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of platinum group metals, gold, nickel, cobalt, and iron resident on Near Earth Objects (NEO’s). If we have the vision, these resources could be used to completely eliminate most metal ore mining on the Earth, which is one of the most polluting processes as cataloged by the EPA.

On the surface of Earth, in order to get five grams of Platinum you have to process a ton of rock using corrosive chemicals. We currently produce a million kilograms of Platinum group metals per year. Many are talking about the Hydrogen economy that uses fuel cells as the answer to CO2 buildup in the atmosphere. All of the best fuel cells have to use platinum group metals to operate. Also, the key pollution fighting technology in automobiles, the catalytic converter, must use them as well. All we are doing is trading one form of pollution for another if we only rely on terrestrial resources.

To look at the dark side of the equation, we need these high orbit stations to be able to find and map the distribution of NEO’s that might wack us back into the stone age. NASA is currently only looking for the ones that will totally destroy civilization. What about the far more numerous NEO’s that would only destroy half the earth or maybe only a stray continent?

Jay Tate of the Spaceguard UK group estimated that if a 200 meter in diameter object struck central London you could pretty much kiss all of Europe good by. NASA thinks that they are making progress in finding the big ones, they say that they have found about half of them. Well, we have only found about 2% of the 200 meter objects of which there are probably over 100,000. The object that smashed into the Arizona desert was only 28-35 meters in diameter. There are literally millions objects in this range and we have found only 0.1% of them.

With the probability of being killed by one of these objects a thousand times more likely than you or me winning the lottery we should be worried, very worried. If we had a couple of high orbit stations then we could divert these small bodies on relatively short notice. Not a bad insurance policy.

As far as contributing to global change study, the ground truth studies of the Moon and Mars can make a vital contribution. It is well known that changes in solar radiation have large influences on climate. The three main components are the tilt of the Earth, the variation in the angle of the tilt of the Earth, and the Earth’s orbital eccentricity around the Sun. Also of importance is the 11 year solar cycle, which the GISP2 project found in their ice cores as a contributor to climate for the entire 110,000 year period.

However, no one quite knows the trigger for the dramatic shifts in climate that has happened several times over the last 110,000 years. Several periodic shifts in global temperature have happened at several thousand year intervals in the ice core records. If these changes show up in ice cores from Mars or in changes in solar wind deposition on the Moon then we can definitively know that the Sun is not as constant as we think it is today. If these changes in solar activity are periodic in nature and the cause of dramatic temperature swings then we might actually be able to predict the next shift and take measures to insure our civilization’s future. Right now this is much more important that catching the last wisps of atmosphere in a half billion dollar flyby of Pluto.

Education and Excitement

Finally, this re-prioritization of NASA’s direction would feed the progress of education. Why would this happen if NASA is no longer primarily scientist directed? This re-prioritization would bring the excitement back into NASA and into commercial space companies as well as serve the goals of science and education.

The pace of spaceflight at NASA is frankly boring to the general public. The pace of engineering progress in the computer, telecommunications, and Internet worlds, even after the dot com melt down, is orders of magnitude faster than in the space arena. A billion dollar product such as an Intel microprocessor has a shorter life span than the time it takes to do the safety paperwork to fly an already built payload to ISS.

With frequent flights to ISS – and points beyond – the pace of space technology would accelerate. This would have the same positive feedback that has powered the semiconductor industry for three decades. This would also feed the demand side of space launch to actually give a purpose to all the billions that would otherwise go to waste in SLI. With a return to excitement would be a drive by the brightest students in the land to gravitate to space as they did 40 years ago. Almost to a man or woman, our best and brightest in science and industry of that age group point to the race to the Moon as their impetus to learn.

If Mr. O’Keefe seeks to encourage education, he will have to bring excitement back into the space arena.

Finally, most of us who are in the know, are aware that it was extraordinarily difficult to find a replacement for the previous NASA administrator. In some ways NASA is a wreck today and not many people who were contacted really wanted to step into that job. Many saw NASA as a dead end career wise.

Sean O’Keefe stepped into the gap and took the reins at a critical time, the most important time in NASA’s history. As I tell many of my space advocate associates, it is no longer 1985. By that I mean that NASA is not the haughty, know it all agency of the past that does everything it can to wreck commercial space companies. A door is open today to mold and form the agency and the future.

A “favorite at court” Sean O’Keefe has the chance to turn NASA around and answer the question “what’s the point?” that he himself asked. Over 600 years ago the successor to Zheng He could not answer that question and China suffers the result of that lack to this day.

Congress and the Administration can help. Dana Rohrabacher’s Zero G Zero Tax bill would be a phenomenal aid to space development. The scoring committee estimated it’s cost to the treasury over ten years at over $9 billion dollars. This is using static scoring. What this hides is that this would actually generate over $50 billion dollars in economic activity (to lose $9 billion in taxes). This is incredible and represents more than a 50% increase in the industry. There are other bills that are before Congress that will help such as the Calvert-Ortiz bill. Recent protestations by Congress persons about NASA’s budget may actually lead to increases in the budget. All of these things are good signs.

I have heard it said by Mr. O’Keefe that he did not come to the agency just to mark time but to make an impact. NASA is ready for that. We in the space advocacy community, and commercial space enterprise are ready for that.

Go for it Mr. O’Keefe, the future is at stake.

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