The Vision for Space Exploration: New Opportunities – A Speech by NASA ARC Director Simon P. Worden

By SpaceRef Editor
May 9, 2006
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The Vision for Space Exploration: New Opportunities – A Speech by NASA ARC Director Simon P. Worden

Editor’s note: The following speech was given by NASA Ames Research Center Director Simon P. Worden at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles on 7 May 2006. Worden’s comments as presented here were transcribed by SpaceRef from an audio recording.

I’m delighted to be here today – although I must say I’m a little “ridden hard and put up wet” as my granddad the farmer used to say. Having just become a government employee again – and I enjoyed the minimal paperwork involved – you know I found out that there’s even a form to get your comments on how well the paperwork reduction act is working! There is a benefit of being a new employee – for a while at least I can claim ignorance and seek forgiveness rather than permission for what I have to say.

What I really want to talk about today – the general theme – is the private sector and space exploration. When President Bush announced the new Vision for Space Exploration, a little over two years ago, a lot of us were thrilled. Although I must say to me it felt a bit like Yogi Berra’s famous statement “It’s déjà vu all over again” time – because I participated in the first President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative.

Then and now the space community got pretty excited and frustrated. We are off to a much better start now than we were in 1989. This is due largely due to the enthusiasm and leadership shown at NASA over the last year. This having been said, you only have to open an issue of the Washington Post or the New York Times or some other paper and see some carping about the exploration. Its too expensive, competes with science, other priorities etc., etc. This is kind of worrisome because, although we have the current supportive Administration, Congress and NASA leadership today, its going to take a couple of decades for us to realize the real objective of expanding human presence in the solar system. And I don’t know how we’re going to keep up the supportive situation we have today.

And I’d like to say that when I talk about “human presence” – I really mean “settlement” of the solar system. And I want to pause on that word – “settlement” because that’s what we are truly embarking upon and that’s the really exciting part of what we are about.

Now these are the key questions then: How do we sustain the vision for space exploration to lead us to settlement? How do we afford it? How do we nurture it? My answer – and I think a lot of yours’ – is the private sector. This is not necessarily easy or straightforward. For a start why would the private sector individual spend the money on space exploration? And if they do what is the role of the government? And in particular how do we address the number one item in all space activities – how to get to space to start with?

Some – and many in this room, I’m sure – believe the key to private sector funding of space activities, starting with launch vehicles is space tourism. Indeed, most of the private sector space ventures ongoing today such as Virgin Galactic and Bob Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace are focused on tourism. I do not doubt that tourism has a big role to play – especially in the space launch area.

Indeed if the price comes down a bit and I can figure out how to obfuscate my wife about where $100K or so of our savings went – and why I was gone for a week or so – I would love to fly in space myself!

But I’ve got to point out that history teaches us new frontiers were not opened up by tourists. English visitors and colonists in the 17th century had few if any wealthy tourists among their numbers. So I believe we must look elsewhere for the interests and funds to sustain the type of space exploration – and settlement – that we all seek.

Let me provide you a few thoughts how we might approach this problem. First I will assert (which may be changed by my leadership) that the government should focus its efforts on two areas. The first is infrastructure. Now, having worked for a different organization (as was pointed out) – this is usually called “roads and commodes”.

Now, I’m an astronomer – that’s my background. Until a week ago I actually worked as an astronomer, was paid as an astronomer, it’s always nice to receive a paycheck to do something that is really fun – and which I am again doing. But what I want to note is that most of the light collecting power of this nation – and indeed of the world – has been and continues to be built largely with private, non-federal funds.

Now, it’s relatively easy – although not simple – to ask a billionaire to spring for the world’s largest telescope named after him – a move that will enshrine his or her name forever associated with unlocking the secrets of the universe. But it’s quite another to ask the billionaire to spring for the “Billionaire Smith” memorial power plant and dirt road leading to it. Fortunately we have the government do that! Indeed, as I will discuss later I believe key space science, particularly space astronomy, might be done with privately funded space and lunar observatories.

Second, private funding sources are not very interested in getting stuck with open-ended R&D. This is again where I think the government comes in – and indeed this was the role of NASA’s predecessor agency, NACA. I might add that the key technology the government should pursue is robots that build robots. In fact I was delighted that when I got to Ames that allover the place are NACA logos. So I hope maybe we can set one on the moon.

But I might add that I thing that the technology that we need is robots that build robots. Indeed, the vision that I would have for human spaceflight to the moon is that the next set of astronauts to land back on the moon will be met at the door of the robot-built habitat by a robot offering a martini made from lunar resources. Now that I live in California, perhaps some fine wine made from lunar resources.

Let me talk about launch for a moment. This is key area for private sector business in the classical sense. I believe that access to space should be treated as a private trucking company venture. And I’m really pleased to see that my agency has strongly supported this approach for resupply of the Space Station.

Let me turn to the moon for a minute. And here’s a legitimate question: Why would private sector place money there? I think there’s a good answer. I asked Edward Teller this question over a decade ago – you remember him, guy with a foreign accent and striking resemblance to either Yoda or Dr. Strangelove, take your pick!

Dr. Teller told me that he thought that the best resource the moon had was space. I thought that was a smart aleck answer, but he went on to say it was space where you could pretty much do as you liked. In short the moon doesn’t have an EPA or any other regulatory agencies – or any lawyers.

I maintain that the moon could become a reserve for doing things too dangerous to do on the Earth, but with “Earth-shaking” benefit, if you’ll pardon that pun. For example, I think that the moon might be the key to mitigating global warming – another idea Teller and his colleagues pioneered – and one that I think is quite real – more on that later.

Let me start with infrastructure. For the moon this means such things as communications, position, navigation and timing, situation awareness and power. There are two models for supplying these utilities. The first is the government model – currently popular. In this case the government builds the utility and operates it. GPS is an example of this approach.

But there’s another approach to supplying infrastructure. This was the one used in building the transcontinental railroads in the 19th century. In this instance the private sector was induced to build the railroads in return for two things – first business with the government. But more important was land. The railroads were given ownership to land on either side of the railroad. This became their true inducement. I certainly prefer this latter approach. But it’s contingent upon the concept of private ownership of real estate on the moon.

This is arguably possible within the Outer Space Treaty – which seems to only prohibit national ownership. But it will certainly be argued by far more lawyers than I ever care to deal with – I guess that’s not many because even one lawyer is too many for me.

But I want to make this point that the issue of private ownership – or at least the equivalent – is going to be a critical issue not only for the United States – but also for our partners around the world.

Now, how might we start on this development of lunar utilities? I’d suggest the first step should be just setting standards. A couple of years ago I read the story of two French astronomers in the late 18th Century — Jean Baptiste Delambre and Pierre Méchain. French measurement systems at this time, or anyone else’s at that time were a confusing mess. For example, just what does furlongs per fortnight measure?

The French King commissioned these two astronomers to establish a standard unit of length than anyone could verify. They suggested that the meter was to be one ten millionth of a quadrant of the Earth’s circumference. The astronomers were to measure this quadrant using survey instruments a portion of this arc.

While they were supposed to take only a year or so – at that time in history, the early 1790s there was a bit of political turmoil with their sponsor the king getting a very close shave. For a while Méchain was behind enemy lines and at some risk from trying to take survey measurements baselined on an enemy fortress. And the Spanish authorities were a little concerned about a Frenchman measuring their fortress.

In fact the French astronomers made a big mistake and got the Earth’s circumference slightly wrong. But a little later a subsequent French leader, Napoleon, used their measurements and called a world conference to set the meter’s length. Everyone but the Brits showed up. I can’t understand why they didn’t show up. But this action set a rational measurement system that set the French up for several centuries of industrial and scientific leadership. So, I would maintain that our next step in space exploration would be to emulate the French and set the protocols and standards – in cooperation with our colleagues around the world – to be used for the moon and beyond. This is something that I would advocate could be done immediately. It doesn’t cost you any money.

We have an excellent opportunity to start setting standards through communications protocols. For example, in the next half-decade at least four missions from a variety of nations are going to the moon – our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Indian Chandrayaan I, Chinese Chang-e and Japanese Selene – and there are others planned.

I think that now is the time to standardize communications protocols to make these and all subsequent missions inter-operable – a key requirement for private sector development. From this point I believe some business case – perhaps encouraged by private ownership – or usage agreement – of lunar real estate could finance and build much of the necessary infrastructure for long-range lunar development.

The next step is to get the private sector to put the lunar communications, navigation and timing systems in place. If the government were to prove the technology out here for small cheap satellites to the moon – and watch this space from NASA, and in particular, NASA Ames, my new center, because I think we’re going to do something along these lines. I’m convinced the private sector will do the rest. For example, I believe NASA and other governments could agree to be what’s called “anchor tenants” for a lunar communications system which would be privately financed and put in place.

A word on what I mean by “cheap”. I do not see any reason why a few hundred kilogram lunar communications of GPS-like satellite can’t be built and launched for a few tens of millions of dollars. I really mean this – and I hope to prove it in two years or so.

Now, what would the private sector want the moon for beyond support to government space activities? Let me suggest, as a start, privately funded science. As I noted before astronomy is largely privately financed science area in the U.S., at least for building big instruments – some of these are pretty expensive. The Allen radio astronomy array is over $30 million. The University of California led Keck Telescope cost over $100 million and the University of Arizona has a Large Binocular telescope at a similar cost.

The next generation of telescopes, also planned to be privately financed are even more ambitious. The Giant Magellan Telescope, with its first mirrors now being polished at the University of Arizona, will have an effective aperture of 24 meters and cost about $400 million. The University of California is beginning a 30-meter instrument that could cost close to $1 billion.

Now, I would suggest, and I know that there are people here who are working on this, why not put the follow-on instruments on the moon – and privately fund them? Indeed this is exactly what the Lunar Enterprise Corporation and SpaceDev have in mind. A wealthy astronomy enthusiast in Hawaii, Steve Durst is working with Space Dev Corporation on a low cost mission to send a modest size telescope to the moon.

Of course there are issues with this approach – among others, as some of my astronomy colleagues point out, there may be a dusty “atmosphere” over some areas of the moon. Just like terrestrial observatories we need to do a site survey. I believe that such a survey can be done with a very low-cost lunar lander – considerably under $50 million. This site survey does strike me as an appropriate government task and I intend to urge NASA to consider such a mission.

But none of the above makes anyone any money. To be sure what I call “venture philanthropists” may fund lunar and Mars missions in the interest of mankind. But in the end someone needs to be able to make some money. I think I know of an interesting way how they might do that.

Let’s follow up on Edward Teller’s suggestion of the moon as a place to perform dangerous technology development. He had in mind nuclear technologies. But there are far more dangerous technologies now under development. I’ve already noted robots that build robots. Some fear that such technology could get out of hand and turn the entire Earth into “grey goo” consisting of trillions of self-replicating microbots that consume all material on Earth. Now, the same technology could also, properly controlled, cheaply manufacture all of humankinds needs.

But the scary risk aspect may prevent us from even moving in this direction on Earth. But why not the moon? Development of this technology could proceed to the point on the moon where we had high certainty is presented no grey goo or other catastrophic potential before it is used on Earth. While no technology is completely safe, the extra layer of protection afforded by remote development could allow these high potential – and high potential payoff – for commercial investors to proceed.

There is other dangerous and potentially high payoff, high-risk technologies. Advanced genetic engineering and true artificial intelligence come to mind. The latter may present a particularly sticky problem as machine intelligence might be expected to operate, and even evolve up to million times faster than we do. In this case, any development of this technology would almost certainly be mandated to occur far away and under careful control. The moon may be ideal for this.

Other even more exotic possibilities may arise such as experiments into so-called zero point energy. The latter clearly the province of science fiction – but perhaps not forever. Each of these technologies offers an unlimited future, with corresponding rewards for those investing in their development. But each has risks that may well mandate the use of extreme isolation such as the moon offers.

Perhaps the nearest term use of the moon to quarantine dangerous technologies may be the return of possibly life-bearing Martian material. With growing life evidence in the form of variable methane and formaldehyde concentrations on Mars, the likelihood that either human expeditions to Mars or even return of Mars samples will be forbidden until they can be determined to be safe – or possible Mars life can be ascertained.

Our experience with mixing vastly different life forms is that one usually destroys the other. The benefit of knowledge and even products of Martian life, if it exists is awesome. But I for one wouldn’t want to take the maybe 50-50 chance that Earth life is on the losing side of the exchange.

Correspondingly, I think that building a Mars habitat and receiving laboratory on the moon for Mars samples could allow us to determine its safety – and perhaps compatibility with Earth life. Several investigators such as Paul Todd have designed simple and affordable Mars habitats for the moon that could perform this function. Given the benefits I would suspect these facilities might even be funded from private sources.

Again, one of the key aspects to the use of the moon as a quarantine lab for private product development is the issue of ownership. No one will invest in expensive facilities unless they have some confidence in continued use akin to ownership. As noted earlier, I believe the Outer Space Treaty arguably allows private, non-government ownership. It’s essential that we address this issue soon.

Once private ownership is set, I suspect there will be a land rush for what may be the most valuable resource in the solar system. Namely, the lunar polar craters with potential volatiles, including water resources. But equally valuable are the nearby crater rims in near-continuous sunlight – the so-called “peaks of eternal light“. You heard it here – call your real estate agents now!

Let me close my discussion of future possibilities with a rather encompassing idea. Global warming is a big deal as I’m sure you all know. Damage caused by global warming could run into tens of trillions of dollars over the next half century. Most solutions for this purported global warming – and again, this is an open scientific issue as to how much global warming there is and what causes it.

Most of the solutions proposed fall into either what I call the “grow strawberries in the backyard” School – or alternatively, the “return to nature” school or alternatively the complete restructure of the economy to use alternate fuels and so forth. Now, I think there is a third way on this.

A few years ago there was an episode of Star Trek – I’m sure no one here ever watched that! But the episode featured a super powerful creature named ‘Q.’ [“Deja Q“] He was on the starship Enterprise when a giant stellar fragment – whatever that is – was about to destroy the ship. Captain Picard – or was it Kirk? Asked him what he was going to do. Q said “simple, just change the gravitational constant.” I and one of my former colleagues at the University of Arizona, Professor Roger Angel believe we can do the same for global warming. But in this case we simply change the solar constant to compensate for greenhouse warming. How do we do you think that we might do that?

Edward Teller and his colleagues, particularly a guy named James Early – had an answer. They said: build a giant shield 2,000 km across at the Earth-sun L-1 point to block a few percent of the solar input. This would obviously be an impossible task if launched with current technology from Earth. But it might be quite feasible if the material was obtained and launched from the moon – or if we use new launch technologies could even make it much more affordable to launch from Earth.

Roger Angel and I have expanded on the previous work. We believe that making the shields out of transmissive material and using many smaller shields rather than a single giant one would enable us to piecewise construct an affordable shield. This is still a massive undertaking requiring ten to twenty million tons of material or more at L-1 and millions of small blocker spacecraft.

Before you laugh too much, this amount of material is comparable to about thirty supertankers we build today to supply our energy needs. The technology to build the spacecraft easily exists today. Each spacecraft would consist of thin lightweight struts, small solar sail positioners, and electronic control as well as very thin glass diffusive elements that would be rolled out onto the struts by robotic factories. Much of the material might be manufactured on the moon. It’s a daunting manufacturing task – millions of units would have to be constructed over several decades. But small numbers of factories today produce millions of cars weighing more than each spacecraft each year.

To get to the main point of our proposal however, we believe such a shield might be privately financed. Today nations and individuals trade in “carbon credits” as part of the Kyoto Treaty’s paradigm to limit greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The going rate of these carbon credits is a few dollars to a few tens of dollars (actually its euros because the U.S. did not sign the treaty) per ton of carbon.

There is about half a trillion tons of excess carbon in the atmosphere. So that’s worth at least several trillion dollars to mitigate. We suggest that the carbon credits might be sold to finance the construction of the shield – element by element. Indeed, if other methods to mitigate the shield are more effective or perhaps effective in concert with it, even a partially constructed shield would contribute to the solution. Similarly, if it’s no longer needed or counterproductive – or it turns out that global warming does not exist – it’s easy to sail the elements away into the solar system and out of the way.

While much of what I’ve discussed borders on science fiction – particularly the last proposal, I believe we should look to various private sector possibilities as the best – and perhaps the only way to sustain the current Vision for Space Exploration. I look forward to your help.

SpaceRef staff editor.