Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Space Policy 2007

It’s strange that, if I were to prioritize the different issues that I write about in order of importance, that I do not spend much time on the issues that would be at the top of that list. These are (1) the continued existence of the human species (and its descendent species), and (2) preventing catastrophic harm on a global scale. Clearly, many of the issues we have to deal with pale in significance.

In this context, let me share some headlines with you from the last few days.

U.N. urged to take action on asteroid threat” A 460-foot long asteroid called Apophis (appropriately named, for Stargate SG1 fans) has a 1in 45,000 chance of hitting the earth on April 13, 2036. Several scientists want the UN to take responsibility for determining how to respond to this and similar threats.

Scientists to NASA: Study Earth” I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago in a post, “Evidence-Based Thinking about Earth’s Future” – about the fact that the Bush budget is seriously depleting NASA’s capacity to collect data on what people are doing to Earth. The less data we have, the more our policy decisions will be blinded by ignorance.

Moon ventures could bring in good money: Experts explore commercial spinoffs from lunar exploration.” . This is a look at ways in which private companies can make private profits associated with NASA’s plan to return to the moon by 2020.

NASA Studies Manned Asteroid Mission” . This is a plan to use the hardware that NASA is designing to return to the moon to send people to examine an asteroid as its orbit brings it near Earth.

Now, I am going to engage in some rather unrestrained dreaming. I realize that I have absolutely no power to make the changes that I describe below. However, that does not imply that these are not worthy of consideration.

Earth Monitoring

Of all of the tasks that NASA performs, those that actually produce dividends for the people of Earth should be its greatest priority. This means protecting the Earth from asteroids and other sources of harm, and in providing us with data that we need to make sound policy decisions. There is simply no reason to put a lunar base on the to-do list until those space activities that promise to pay dividends to the people of Earth have been taken care of.

So, let’s say that we eliminate this $104 billion lunar base plan, and put $500 million per year ($7 billion from now to 2020) into earth-monitoring satellites. This leaves $97 billion for other projects.


Those other projects include studying the asteroids.

In space, the best measure of distance is not in miles, but in what is called “delta-v” or “change in velocity”. This tells us how much energy is required to get from one place to another. Because of the moon’s gravity, it’s “delta-v” is actually quite high – it takes a lot of energy to get off of the surface. Asteroids have little or no gravity. We can go to and from many earth-crossing asteroids with less delta-v then going to and from the moon. Meaning, in an astronomical sense, those asteroids are “closer” than the moon.

As of February 6th, we knew of 600 asteroids that are “closer” than the moon in terms of delta-v requirements.

Plus, NASA has reason to study asteroids in a way that pays dividends for the people on Earth. Protecting the people of Earth from a collision is certainly an activity that pays dividends to the people of Earth. Asteroids also have resources that can be used in space – resources that can be harvested without cutting deeper scars into the living earth.

Priming the Pump

We have got a planet full of people wanting to get into space. In June, 2004, SpaceShipOne made the first privately funded space flight and, in October of that year, earned its builders the $10 million X-Prize for making two trips into space in a two-week period.

Since then, Richard Branson of British Airways is investing in a set of larger ships capable of taking paying passengers into space. Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace launched a test module for a private space station. He is now teaming up with Lockheed Martin to make Lockheed’s Atlas 5 rocket capable of taking humans into orbit. With the aid of a pair of development contracts, SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler are developing their own rockets capable of carrying people to the Space Station.

We do not need the government to be running these programs. It seems that there are a lot of private individuals willing to do the same thing. They could certainly use some financial help. However, we would be better off having NASA buy services from these companies than building and launching its own projects.

Think of this as a way of turning $90 billion in taxpayer money into a $200 to $300 billion space program. If NASA offered this money as prices for the successful accomplishment of certain feats in space development, these companies would find it that much easier to come up with the rest of the money.

So, now, we have our earth-monitoring satellites, and we have doubled or tripled the size of America’s space program – without adding a single dime to the government’s budget.

Asteroid Development

Ultimately, President Bush’s declared purpose of his space initiative is to bring the rest of the solar system into Earth’s economic sphere. (Or, more accurately, into the economic sphere of the United States.) However, he is mistaken in believing that the moon offers the best economic resource. The best economic resources come from the asteroids.

One payoff that will come from asteroid development is, specifically, by avoiding the tremendous costs of an asteroid impact. The moon is not going to hit the Earth in any foreseeable future – we face no risk of catastrophic costs from that direction. We need to worry about asteroids, which means studying asteroids.

Also, because of the low delta-v requirements, asteroids are more useful. Some asteroids are thought to be extinct comets – chunks of ice covered with a think insulating layer of dirt and rocks. These could give us the water we are looking for to use in space.

By the way, the Japanese got some very interesting pictures of one of these asteroids. They can be found with the New Scientist article, “Hayabusa probe prepares to punch an asteroid” As you can see, this asteroid is not a solid rock. It is a collection of gravel flying in close formation – shattered by impacts then falling back in on itself.

If there is good money to be made on moon ventures, then private companies should be permitted to collect it. One of the possible uses mentioned for lunar resources is to provide a base for spacecraft going to other parts of the solar system. If, indeed, this is an advantage, we can expect companies to take advantage of this as they seek to collect the prizes that come from harvesting data and resources from near-earth asteroids.

Additional Considerations

There are a couple of additional points that deserve consideration.

(1) Asteroids are not the only threat that we face from space. One might get the wrong impression that once we know the orbits of the asteroids, and have taken pains to remove any threats, that the danger is over. There is another threat – long period comets. These are comets that show up every 20,000 years or so as their orbits carry them far from the sun. They come into the inner solar system at exceptionally high speeds, meaning that they pack a lot of energy, before heading back into deep space again. If one of these bodies is heading our way, we will not likely have years to respond to the threat. We may only have a couple of months.

(2) One thing that we can be sure of is a big-budget NASA project is going to put a lot of money into the pockets of organizations that hire the best lobbyists and make the biggest campaign contributions to the right candidates. On the other hand, a prize system will give the money to the people with the best engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs – people who can dream up ways to add to the revenue from a space mission on the private market. If we are to remain competitive on the global marketplace, we need scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs more than we need politicians, lawyers, and lobbyists.


Let’s return to Earth for a moment and look at the real-world, practical possibilities. We pretty much need this $500 million per year in earth-monitoring satellites. If anybody says that we do not have enough money to pay for them, that person should be told that the lack of information and “sailing blind” is likely to cost us a lot more than $500 million per year.

As for asteroids and comets, it is time to take that threat seriously – a lot more seriously than building a moon base. Really, I would hate to put all of this effort into making the world a better place than it would have otherwise been, only to have it obliterated because of a lack of foresight. That’s almost as stupid as living in a city that sits below sea level without taking pains to make sure that the dikes could withstand a hurricane.


Anonymous said...

You should be the government’s advisor on space policy. No kidding.

Dave said...

We're much more in agreement than disagreement. I'd like to add just two mods to a couple of the things you've said:

1. Reorienting the NASA budget towards earth observation (et al):
NASA has done climate for the government since the beginning of the agency; and it has definitely had its cross-fertilizaiton advantages. (Run-away global warming was 'discovered' - in the flesh, as it were - first on Venus, after all). But in the 21st century, climate/atmosphere/oceans/species extinction are one subject area that can totally sink any other government agency's other efforts if forced to bear it.
The US has grown much in the last few decades - but our government, believe it or not, has not grown enough in the right ways to handle the increased problems; we've had, in fact, only one new Cabinet Dept. (Homeland Security) in that time. It has come time to combine environmental and climate protection into a single new cabinet agency; one that consolidates from other agencies all atmosphere, ocean, climate, and species survival issues. One where tradeoffs between earth climate monitoring and aeronautical research (for example) are not made, when the bigger issues need to be addressed holistically.

2. "It's asteroids, stupid".
While you haven't propounded that per-se, it's close, I think. You articulated well the 'why' of NEO missions for planetary defense reasons; they could be the single best return on investment Earth ever made.
It's also correct that resources we can actually use in space are not going to come from the Moon - at least not in any reasonable near-term. Space sustainability - going back, to stay - can only be done by using more easily accessible resources that also contain the materials we need. NEO's match that on each score a lot more than the Moon does; one of the reasons our current approach to the Vision for Space Exploration is not sustainable.

One aspect of space sustainability is for resources to be providable - meaning, selllable - to where they are needed the most. The clear area of greatest need is not on the moon (and it never may be); but, in LEO (low-earth orbit). Absent some new miracle development, there will never be the great reduction in Earth-to-LEO launch costs that has usually been the focus of humanity's space breakout. What can make a difference is not in bringing up all the fuel from Earth; to being able to refuel -affordably- in LEO, and other places, to make a solar-system transporation system affordable and sustainable.

The resources to enable LEO refuelling exist primarily on NEO's; not on the Moon. And NEOs are more accessible; meaning, using them is more affordable. As you point out, asteroid resource utilization and planetary defense are directly inter-related. Money spent on one, ends up being leveraged to assist in the other as well. Nothing related to setting up a base on the moon can be said to do that. The Moon, as a Vision focus, is, unfortunatley, a cost-sink; all it does is suck money in, while returning precious little to Earth in the process.

Dave Huntsman