Friday, 29 January 2010

We Choose NOT to go to the Moon

From the New York Times (while it's still viewable) :
President Obama will end NASA’s return mission to the moon and turn to private companies to launch astronauts into space when he unveils his budget request to Congress next week, an administration official said Thursday.

The shift would “put NASA on a more sustainable and ambitious path to the future,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“My biggest fear is that this amounts to a slow death of our nation’s human space flight program,” Representative Bill Posey, Republican of Florida, said in a statement.

Mr. Obama’s request, which will be announced on Monday, would add $6 billion over five years to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget compared with projections last year. With the increase, NASA would receive $100 billion over the 2011 through 2015 fiscal years.
Mr. Obama’s proposal would further dismantle what remains of the human spaceflight initiative started by the Bush administration in 2004. Last year, $3.5 billion in spending was cut from President George W. Bush’s NASA budget projection for 2011 through 2013, money that would have been used to develop the lander that was to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

The proposed budget increase would also be much less than the $3-billion-a-year increase that a blue-ribbon committee appointed by the Obama administration said was needed for NASA to successfully pursue a human spaceflight program beyond low-Earth orbit.

Previous Posts on the subject:

And an article I wrote about the future...
Want a Job in Space Development? Learn Mandarin in just three months with our new interactive technology!

It was some 550 years ago that the first great age of exploration ended, when the Chinese Ming Dynasty stopped all intercontinental trans-oceanic expeditions - expeditions that had explored much of the Pacific, and reached all the way to Africa. A nation that had built up seafaring technology far ahead of anything the world would see for hundreds of years abandoned it because it had "better things to do with the money".

The USA had a commanding technological lead in crewed space vehicles in 1975. But, by 2015, it had no capability at all. By announcing the cancellation of the "Space Exploration Initiative", the Obama administration merely recognised that, while the technology was there, the whole space program had become merely a way to ration Pork from the Pork-Barrel, with project after project being cancelled half-complete, as the money was re-allocated to different Congressional Districts in turn. The money that was saved added almost one per cent to the funding of the new Educational Initiatives and every bit helped.

This did not mean a great deal to the average American, although it was a blow to national pride. But, by then, U.S.-based private corporations were starting to institute commercial space flights for the ultra-rich at first, sub-orbital hops and, ten years later, launches to hotels in Low Earth Orbit and trans-polar flights from New York to Tokyo for those to whom time was money and an hour worth a half million. Additional traffic was generated by the increasing number of Chinese orbital construction facilities starting in 2025. These were built with components ferried up by un-crewed Heavy Lift rockets - which still had a distressing tendency to explode now and then -but the crews were taken up in comfort and safety, mainly by American commercial spacecraft.

It was only with the first commercial fusion plants coming on-line in 2050 that the importance of the 15-year-old Chinese Lunar Colony became obvious. He3 was needed by the new technology as fuel and the only large-scale commercially practicable source was refined lunar soil. All that was needed to deliver the refined product was a simple-to-construct solar-powered magnetic catapult to launch the one-ton canisters back to Earth. The Moon became the new Saudi Arabia.

The Era of Space Exploration was over; the Era of Space Development had begun.

“In German - or English - I know how to Count Down…
And I’m learning Chinese,” said Wehrner von Braun…
That was published in December 2008. I didn't predict the Global Financial Crisis, but figured out that they'd find a way to allocate the money to more pressing needs anyway.

Maybe though there's cause for hope. With private enterprise being given the chance to see what it can do in getting us to LEO - as it is in Russia at the moment, remember - we could have a good baseline for a re-start.

But not in 2020.

From the BBC :
A major hurdle to producing fusion energy using lasers has been swept aside, results in a new report show.

The controlled fusion of atoms - creating conditions like those in our Sun - has long been touted as a possible revolutionary energy source.

However, there have been doubts about the use of powerful lasers for fusion energy because the "plasma" they create could interrupt the fusion.

An article in Science showed the plasma is far less of a problem than expected.

The report is based on the first experiments from the National Ignition Facility (Nif) in the US that used all 192 of its laser beams.

Along the way, the experiments smashed the record for the highest energy from a laser - by a factor of 20.

Construction of the National Ignition Facility began at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1997, and was formally completed in May 2009.
We might beat my 2050 prediction there though by a few years.


Jamiegottagun said...

The real foolhardiness in this is that as the US suffers another energy crisis, one of the best ideas for meeting future energy concerns is solar power obtained from collectors on the moon, then transmitted to earth via the new transmission technologies that will soon be a reality.

Whoever controls this source of power, will be whoever establishes bases at the moon's South pole, first. Whoever manages that will control what in the future will be our primary source of power.

Looks like it will be the Chinese, now.

It seems Obama has decided with his continued occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that the US is going to rely on oil, instead.

For an administration that got elected based on "change," this is an incredible refusal to implement that change.

svelte_brunette said...

"one of the best ideas for meeting future energy concerns is solar power obtained from collectors on the moon, then transmitted to earth via the new transmission technologies that will soon be a reality."

Sorry, I can't change the laws of physics Captain.

By the time one includes all the conversion losses between solar, DC storage, "new transmission technology" (which is undoubtedly some form of RF), account for losses in the earth's atmosphere, convert it back to a form we can use on the grid, you'd be VERY lucky to get 5% of the energy OUT that you put IN. Sorry to be such a downer, but I'm an electrical engineer.

Another issue you'd have to deal with is mis-targeting your energy beam. Everything is fine and dandy as long as your beam from the moon is pointed directly at the tiny little collector you've built on earth. A little computer glitch and now your targeting system strays off a degree and sends a few megawatts through a residential area. People are going to complain when their houses get micro waved.

There are plenty of ways to spend a few billion dollars to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. Some of these technologies have been around for years, but not fully exploited, mainly because oil has historically been so cheap. Once oil goes up and stays up, all sorts of alternative energy systems become viable. Our waste water treatment systems, retrofitted with the right equipment could produce enough energy for their own needs and sell some back to the grid. Scientists are working on that now.

A cheap 5KW Sterling engine (about the size needed to run a single family home) running off of a combination of solar power and geothermal energy could remove millions of home from the grid. The trick is making it affordable, so that every home owner could buy one for a few thousand dollars – something that has the potential to be done if we’re willing to invest perhaps a few million $. It’s not nearly as sexy as going to the moon, which is probably why no one is spending a lot of money on it.

Have a nice day,


Jamiegottagun said...

Just because one is an electrical engineer, I guess that doesn't neccessarily mean they are a cutting edge one:

Two words, young lady: infrared lasers :-)

This talks about sattelites, but basing them on the moon is the logical next step.

svelte_brunette said...

One doesn’t have to be “cutting edge” to recognize serious issues with this approach. The first problem is that much of the infrared region sucks for trying to transmit energy through the atmosphere.

(See and scroll down to the sections on “Where does all the sunlight go?” and “Greenhouse Effect.”)

Certainly there are a few bands that could be used, but it would probably be better to go for the near-infrared (below 1400nm, and avoiding the H2O absorption lines). (See and -- scroll down to the graph under “Atmospheric Absorption and transmission.”) (One might also notice that the microwave region above 10cm transmits energy very well.)

As the article you referenced noted: “but there are technical difficulties that still need to be overcome such as improving the efficiency of converting the energy and increasing the power of the laser we can build.”

Currently, DARPA is spending millions of dollars trying to get infrared laser efficiencies as high as 50% ( ) Currently they have managed an astounding 20%. (That would mean if you tried to use it to transmit the energy you collected from a solar panel, 80% would get lost as heat.) I don’t know what you plan to use to collect the infrared energy once it gets to earth, but I wouldn’t expect that efficiency to be above 50% either. Once you’ve converted it, unless you use it right where you are, expect to lose another 20 to 30% in transmission losses.

As I stated before, MUCH energy will be lost in the conversion processes. These problems will take many years, probably decades to overcome. I say that because I’ve been watching solar cell efficiencies go up and set new records every 6 months to a year for the past 20 years (see Figure 1 in: )

Despite great strides in the laboratory, the readily available and AFFORDABLE cells that people can buy today are only on the order of 10% efficient, and somewhere between $3 and $6 per watt, depending on who installs them. Prices for high-efficiency cells (of the type they use for satellites) are very hard to find, but what little info I can find seem to put them at about $100 per watt. Maybe some brainy rocket scientist can give us some better numbers to work with here?

If the price of those high-efficiency cells came down from $100/W to say $2 per watt, we wouldn’t be talking about putting satellites into space to collect solar energy. We’d be covering our roofs with them as fast as the factory could build them.

I seem to recall from my college days (in the late 80’s) that the high-efficiency cells that were donated to help build their first solar racer cost about $100,000. From looking at another school, MIT’s latest solar racer is $243,000. I suspect the price of the solar cells hasn’t gone down that much. (See )

I would argue that if we put our billions of dollars research money into driving the production cost of already producible high-efficiency solar cells down, we’d have a far less expensive way to get energy than shooting up millions of dollars in satellites, lasers, and throw-away rockets.

Have a nice day,


Imogen said...

I have a friend working on Ares who is probably going to lose his job over this :(

Fred Kiesche said...

I looked at the Moon this morning and tears went down my cheeks. My dreams are killed, again. The candidate of hope, indeed. Bah!

Zoe Brain said...

Fred - so we'll have to wait a little longer.
Dreams like yours and mine are unkillable. Fulfillment may get delayed, that's all.
Darn, we *should* have had a moonbase by now.

Loren said...

Even if it's just tourism, there's plenty of interest in manned space flight, even to the moon. The private launchers like SpaceX will probably have man rated systems by 2020 at least, provided manrating isn't turned into a .gov protection racket.

As for energy, most of the more promising fusion technologies are looking to use boron for fuel, look up polywell and dense plasma fusion among others.