Practical Issues for Advocates of Space Development and SSP v2  12-10-2008

Practical Issues for Advocates of Space Development and SSP v2 12-10-2008

December 12, 2008 Opinion

(Sometimes it is useful to restate what may probably be obvious to most of us)

John K. Strickland, Jr.

 Competing Goals (as supported by overlapping groups of advocates) exist: (even within the space program). The immediate political issues of space as a jobs program – (pressure to keep the existing jobs and keep them where they are now) has been a major constraint on what can be politically accomplished by space advocates and supporting politicians. Destination goal arguments (“where we go first”) such as Moon vs. Mars, are also continuing to distract us from the real issues of transport infrastructure, logistics and costs, “how we do it” and “what we actually do there”. These shorter term goals and issues may obscure rationales based on longer range goals, such as human survival via planetary and space colonization, which are harder to discuss outside the space community. However, the short range issues will have an large impact on the longer range goals and are the ones that need to be dealt with now.

Some Non-Competing Goals overlap or are offset in their time frame.

In choosing space program goals, ( in a real world with limited money and attention span), short term, medium and long term goals often seem to be in competition with each other. A clearer view of the “big picture” may reveal that these are not in direct competition. For example, the array of totally non-re-usable deep space and lunar transport hardware (deliberately excluding current Ares I and Orion work) proposed by the current NASA leadership, seems to have been promoted (over possible re-usable versions) by using the issue of maintaining current jobs. In fact, none of the serious development efforts for this hardware, which is critical to any serious human space exploration or development efforts, would even begin for another 5 years, putting them outside the range of “existing” jobs and locations. Only a tiny number of people are even working on these issues now. In other cases, all-up parallel development, such as took place during Apollo, is fully justified, with the result that the rocket is ready when the payload is ready. This particularly applies to possible Ares V payloads.

Prerequisite Direct Goals distract from Ultimate but Indirect goals

. Space Solar Power has tremendous potential to replace a significant portion of current and future base load generating demand. The problem is – to exploit the resource, we need to reduce costs of access to space and continuing launch operations by a factor of about 100. This forces us to focus on solving the direct goal, Cheap Access to Space (CATS) first, before we can use our resources to implement the indirect goal – replacing carbon based energy supply. This makes the indirect goal seem less attractive in terms of allocation of immediate use of resources.

However, some obvious Direct Goals may be Decoys, or may have their own pre-requisite goals:

Some appear to be immediately useable, and thus more attractive for immediate exploitation and funding but may not be what they seem to be. Irregardless of the current energy price fluctuations, ground Solar and Wind energy will have to play a major role in our future energy needs. What is being ignored in the current energy debate are the critical needs for an increased base load electrical supply, and a replacement fuel energy supply, and what is needed for solar and wind to effectively contribute to them in the near term.

The need for base load power is steadily increasing due to immigration, population growth and new uses for electricity, like server farms. Base load energy demand will NOT drop. The main current providers of this critical component (Hydroelectric, Coal, and Nuclear) are all unacceptable to one or more major political groupings, and the use of other resources to provide it are severely constrained by either the high costs of other fossil fuels such as natural gas or the existing severe technological and practical limitations to the 24 / 7 use of solar and wind. This impending additional demand on our base load system that will be created by millions of new plug-in hybrid cars will potentially cause the price of base load electricity to skyrocket, forcing consumers back towards gasoline. Unless new and politically acceptable sources of base load supply are found soon, there will be a major monkey wrench in the “greenwerks”! The highest funding priority in this area should be invested in development of electrical storage technology (to allow both cheap and efficient storage of electricity that has already been generated by wind and solar power), so that it can then be used as part of the base load supply system. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this prerequisite goal can be achieved in any current time frame.

As for the replacement fuel energy supply for vehicles, its pre-requisite goal: the seemingly intractable problem of trying to contain as much energy (per volume or weight) in vehicular batteries or fuel cell storage units as is currently contained in gasoline, may be even more difficult to solve than creating CATS. As a few laptop owners know, packing lots of energy into a very small space can be dangerous! After all, we know there is a solution to the CATS problem, since re-usable airplanes already exist! If this is true, and/or if the indirect goal of base load power from SSP might be achieved sooner than the indirect goal of base load power from ground solar and wind, then SSP should be reconsidered in its priority. In any case, more energy options are better.

Yes, we need both “guns and butter

“: Since current launch economics do not allow immediate construction of a SSP system to begin, we need both existing and alternate energy systems to “fill in the gap”. We would not want to exclusively use SPS as our only energy source anyway, since relying on a single source for anything is too dangerous for our fragile civilization. The question is: how can we use alternates in the best way now, and in the best way after SSP becomes feasible. Right now, we have to use most of the power as it is generated. Charging plug-in hybrid cars, and running building air conditioners in the summer from rooftop solar panels are two very good uses. These will continue to be good uses in the future. Long distance transmission lines are also critically needed for Wind power to become more useful.

Indecision amidst Technological Advances:

The knowledge that they will continue makes it harder to decide which hardware (such as Booster choices), to back at any given time. If we could put all political and industrial influences and pressures aside, what would be most useful would be an estimate of all the kinds of payloads that we would like to be able to launch in quantity on medium or true HLV (100 tons to LEO or more) boosters. These would include the currently proposed spectacular science payloads like a giant space telescope that may not be practical primarily due to high Ares V projected launch costs. If we also look at the actual launch rates required to sustain either an effective lunar exploration program, and/or a space power development program, it would become obvious that none of the current HLV designs would allow adequate launch rates for exploration, development or science, due to the high expense of each launch, since all proposed components are effectively expendable.

The “good enough” HLV booster that may be within our grasp

. We may assume that the continuing hypersonics program, eventually allowing a great reduction in required oxidizer mass, will probably result in a “good enough” privately operated two stage (HT-HL) orbital crew vehicle within 1 generation, if the private sector is allowed breathing room. However, for this capability to be expanded to allow its use for HLV-scale cargo launches might require another entire generation of development, and the first stage fly-back-and-land airframe would have to be enormous, dwarfing most of today’s largest airframes. These might be too large to be safely built and operated.

To “short-circuit” this time and structural gap,

one method would incrementally replace portions of an initial version of the projected large HLV (Ares V-type) booster with smaller, individually recoverable strap-on or stage zero style and upper stage hypersonic booster segments, replacing component for component as the newer technology became available. For this to work, the design has to allow the future configurations to be integrated from the beginning, so that development work on a true large HLV can begin within the next decade. Only competent structural engineers at the highest level can tell how large a core stage structure could also be recoverable without damage. Continuing incremental progress in this direction would steadily reduce the launch cost per pound, and bring SSP (and other large-scale space operations) within economic reality more rapidly. This strategy also recognizes political realities by allowing (with some modifications) work to continue on some currently established or projected programs.

International Cooperation and Participation

would be a very desirable direction for any SSP program. This would allow cooperation between governments and agencies, and eventually competition between companies. The cooperative Mars program between NASA and ESA is a good start in this direction.

SSP does require an interdisciplinary approach

. Currently, some groups and agencies involved with space, energy and the environment either oppose SSP or avoid involvement in it, since they do not have an interdisciplinary approach, and cannot see its advantages from the “big picture” P.O.V. It might be very useful for the government to attempt to specifically find interdisciplinary individuals who can either present a viable and believable “big picture” to the stakeholders, and/or actually manage the coordination of an interdisciplinary project between agencies and other stakeholders.

Fusion energy is still a worthwhile energy goal

, even if it is physically impossible to generate usable energy right now from fusion (and may not be possible for many decades), and in spite of the past role some fusion proponents may have played in diverting funding away from SSP or other energy programs. The overall potential and scope of Fusion is comparable to that of SSP and the two sources would be very complementary in the long run. All we (as pro-energy advocates) are asking is that there be a more realistic balance in funding, tipped toward those energy sources such as ground alternates and SSP, where it is already physically possible to generate clean power and where a realistic path to commercial operation within a couple decades can be shown.

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  • webtaz99 says:

    If we could get a guaranteed customer for the power produced (as the DoD has already volunteered for), that would provide incentive to build SSP. If we were to commit to build SSP, that would provide incentive build cheap heavy lift, and to use Lunar (and possibly NEA) resources, which of, course, also require cheap heavy lift. A “permanent” Lunar base would be a side-effect, and cheap heavy lift plus Lunar materials open the door to Mars missions.