Friday, July 20, 2012

The Real Space Age

Forty-three years ago today, we saw one of those moments that are true watersheds in history. Before July 20, 1969, humanity had only known one world; afterwards, it would forever know two. That said, for all its accomplishments, Project Apollo was always going to be a dead end. It was never going to lead to a long-term human presence on the Moon. There were a number of good reasons to go. One was the fact that no one had ever been, another was the fact that we didn't want the Soviets to get there first. But there just weren't very many good reasons in the early 1970s to stay.

One day, perhaps one day soon, that will change. The problem was always that there wasn't a clear way for anyone to make a profit out of it. Or if there was, the operating costs were so absurdly high that it just wasn't feasible. That's changing, slowly but inexorably. I've been saying for a while now that the center of gravity of the American space effort was shifting towards private industry. The successful mission in late May was an important signpost on that path. There will be more to come.

A while back, I made the statement that the real Space Age had just begun. Now, I'd like to take a few minutes to expand on why I think that's the case. SpaceX and companies like it are going to bend the cost curve to the point that proposals that were once ludicrously ambitious will become feasible. By way of example, let's look at two different proposals, one from about twenty years ago, and another more recent.

It's been speculated for a long time that ice could be hiding out in craters near the Moon's poles that never see sunlight. Vacuum is a very good insulator, and polar craters that are never sunlit can be very cold indeed. Water vapor that finds its way there somehow or other will freeze out, and never escape. The speculation was fanned to high heat by results from the Clementine probe in 1994, when a radar experiment returned reflections from polar craters that were consistent with ice sheets. Within the space enthusiast community, this solved one of the big problems attending lunar habitation: water. Hauling enough water up from Earth to sustain a settlement is hideously expensive. If there's a significant amount of water already up there, it simplifies things tremendously. But the problem remained, how do you finance the voyage to begin with?

Someone hit on the idea of financing it as an entertainment venture, at least initially. Sell the film rights. There'd be plenty of gripping, exciting footage from the mission. Then, once you're there, you can start up a mining operation. This was the beginnings of the Artemis Project, and of the Lunar Resources Company. I was never directly involved, as I was up to my earlobes in grad school at the time, but I kibbitzed on the discussion boards they had on GEnie. One suggestion was fairly well-received: I said that they should time the first mission to coincide with a lunar eclipse. I still think that's worth doing. It's a perspective no one's ever seen before. And, I think it'd be awesome to be able to see every sunset and every sunrise on Earth, all in once glance. They got an impressive amount of planning and preliminary design work done. That's about as far as they got.

What killed them, in the end, was transportation costs. With high-lift launches costing upwards of a quarter-billion dollars, there was no way on (or off) Earth that they were going to be able to drum up that kind of money. This is the same wall that every effort has run up against to date. Every time you have a plan that requires the fabrication of a lot of equipment down here that needs to be put up there, you run up against the fact that the cost of moving it from here to there puts the cost out of reach.

And that's the thing that's changing. New entrants into the launch market are going to bend the cost curve down to the point where ambitious projects become practical.

Earlier this year, a company calling itself Planetary Resources unveiled their plan to mine nearby asteroids for both metals and for water. They're not going to jump right into it, of course. First, they have to be able to spot likely candidates for exploration. Then, they have to get a close-up look. Finally, they have to develop an automated mining and processing unit. Accordingly, their first product is a small space-based telescope. It can be used to look both ways, down towards Earth and up towards space. That's their first revenue stream: people will pay to look at stuff. Universities will pay for telescope time for a variety of reasons. Not just astronomy departments, you can do a surprising amount of archaeology work from a high vantage point. But what Planetary Resources actually intends to use the Arkyd-100 for is to find and prospect likely mining targets. Then, the next step is to fit a small engine to such a telescope, and maneuver it towards such a target for a more detailed look. The last step is obvious: land, and begin digging up goodies. Metal for sale Earthside, and water for fuel.

The reason that they haven't been laughed out of the room yet is that the Arkyd-100 is small enough that it's going to be damn cheap to put one into orbit. They're piggybacking on Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic project for their initial launches, from what I hear, and even if they weren't the Arkyd-100 doesn't weigh a whole lot. Maybe 100 kilograms. They can ride along on just about any satellite launch, for a relatively tiny fee. Eventually, they'll have to be the primary customer, because the mining plant isn't going to be especially small. But by then they'll have a nice bankroll to work with. And they'll have a choice of powerful and relatively inexpensive rockets to choose from.

If successful, they'll attract investors to the market looking for other angles to exploit. That's where things will get really interesting. Because many of our problems are problems of scarcity: not enough materials, not enough energy. There's plenty of both out there, once we learn how to get at it.

Forty years ago, we crawled out of our cradle. Now, we're learning to walk. Soon, we'll learn to run. I wonder what kind of adults we'll be, when we've grown up?

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