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Small steps for space settlement

For many space advocates, space settlement conjures up visions like this, but any initial settlements may be far more austere. (credit: Bryan Versteeg)

For decades, space advocates have been pushing for space settlement: humans living and working permanently beyond Earth. Those visions come in different forms, from bases on the Moon and Mars to the space colonies espoused by Gerard K. O’Neill more than 40 years ago. But over those decades, such visions have remained just that: concepts that have remained largely fantasies.

Those space settlement dreams, though, maybe inching a little closer to reality. Advocates see hope in SpaceX’s efforts to reduce launch costs and Elon Musk’s plans to go to Mars as soon as the 2020s. Jeff Bezos is taking a similar tack at Blue Origin, although pursuing a more O’Neillian vision of space settlement than Musk’s focus on Mars. Even NASA supports the general concept with its plans for a ”sustainable” return to the Moon that will leverage international and commercial capabilities.

“It’s not just the individual things but the pace at which things are happening that is accelerating, and I think that’s a really exciting factor in all this,” said Bruce Pittman, senior vice president of the National Space Society.

Pittman spoke at the NSS’s Space Settlement Summit, a two-day event held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in early November. That event was designed to look at how recent developments could enable, eventually, that long-term vision of space settlement.

Not surprisingly, a lot of discussion focused on achievements and plans in the area of space access. One panel was titled “What Do We Do with 150 Tons to Orbit?”, a reference to the projected payload capacity of SpaceX’s next-generation launch system, known at the time of the conference as Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR. (Last week, Musk announced—via Twitter, of course—that the vehicle’s lower, booster stage would now be called “Super Heavy” and the upper, “spaceship” stage would henceforth be called “Starship.”)

“If you have that size of vehicle operating, fully reusable and for tens of millions of dollars per flight, I think it’s going to completely transform how we use space,” said Dan Rasky, director of the Space Portal Office at NASA’s Ames Research Center, during that panel. He compared its impact to the transcontinental railroad, which dramatically shortened the time to cross the country, decreased the cost, and improved safety. “It was absolutely transformative, and things that seemed crazy before that was put in place suddenly became commonplace after it was in place. I think we may be on the verge of that for space.”

SpaceX is not alone: others at the event brought up Blue Origin’s work, as well as the Air Force’s Launch Service Agreement awards made in October to help fund development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn as well as United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rockets.

“We have been locked into this idea of space being a very difficult, expensive proposition,” Rasky said. “If we see these barriers to entry drop significantly, what could really happen?”

The renewed emphasis on a return to the Moon also excited settlement advocates, in particular because of the presence of resources like water ice. “Propellant on the moon would lower the cost of going from Earth to the lunar surface by a factor of three,” said George Sowers, a professor in the space resources program at the Colorado School of Mines. “To me that’s the obvious next step.”

Sowers called “super important” Space Policy Directive (SPD) 1, signed by President Trump last December, that calls for a human return to the Moon. The language in that directive, which includes commercial and international partnerships to enable a sustainable lunar return, suggested to attendees that, unlike the Space Exploration Initiative and the Vision for Space Exploration, this time will be different.

“For the first time in a very long time, we have a coherent and executable strategy happening out of the administration to do something in space that could really work,” said Greg Autry, a USC professor who served on the NASA transition team for the Trump administration after the 2016 election.

No current members of NASA’s leadership team were at the meeting, but NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine did record brief remarks played at the event. “We share your vision of people living in space permanently and creating a vibrant space economy,” he said, before talking about NASA’s own exploration plans.

Those words were music to attendees’ ears. “Jim Bridenstine is about the best NASA administrator in regards to our goals that we could expect,” said Mark Hopkins, chairman of the executive committee of the NSS.

Not everyone was convinced that this time will be different, though. “All the right words are there, and it comes down to execution,” said Mark Nall, a former manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center who is now a co-founder of space robotics company OffWorld. “We had all the right words there for the Vision for Space Exploration: extend Earth’s economic sphere throughout the solar system. It should have worked.”

Autry agreed with those concerns. “I’m concerned that there’s nobody in the ‘A Suite’ at NASA Headquarters who knows how to run business or has a truly commercial perspective,” he said. “I don’t see how they’re going to execute on the plan they were asked to execute on.”

That included, for some, skepticism about the utility of the Gateway, which NASA argues is an essential step towards returning humans to the Moon sustainably but others see as a distraction towards the goal of people on the lunar surface. (At a meeting of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group in mid-November, former NASA administrator Mike Griffin said that building a Gateway before returning humans to the surface of the Moon was a “stupid architecture.”)

“It comes down to what’s the purpose of the Gateway, and I don’t think that’s been clearly articulated,” Nall said.

“Personally, I’m excited about the Gateway if it is used as a proving ground for a variety of commercial capabilities,” Autry said. “If this becomes that ‘tollbooth,’ as some people want to call it, where it becomes the only way to get to the lunar surface, then that’s an impediment.”

But there was a tendency at the event to skip ahead to that desired end state, one with people on the Moon and Mars, and settlements in Earth orbit or beyond hosting thousands of people. A prime example of this was on one panel, where Anthony Longman of Skyframe Research discussed in detail one concept for an expandable space habitat that could grow to more than 200 meters in radius and house thousands of people using a concept called tensegrity structures. Attendees peppered him with a wide range of technical questions about its design, such as whether there was whether there was enough space for crops to sustain an envisioned 8,000 people or merely 1,000.

That is, until someone asked how much it would cost to build. “Oh, costs,” he said, and paused, as if reminded of an unpleasant reality he had hoped to gloss over. One chart, he said, “suggested it was in the tens of trillions, but I don’t know for sure.”

Even that was too much for an audience that seemed willing to accept the technical challenges of such a structure. “That’s probably not right,” he said when audience members asked if they heard that right. “An earlier estimate we worked on was about 400 billion. I don’t really know.”

Initial space settlements are likely not to be as grandiose, or expensive, but perhaps instead a collection of modules. During one panel, someone asked what the MVP—minimum viable product, in the world of startups—would be for space settlements.

“I like cylinders. I like cylinders because they’re big and roomy,” said Al Globus of San Jose State University. A modular approach, like one he said one student team developed using expandable modules from Bigelow Aerospace, is possible, but not necessarily desirable to him. “There’s a lot to be said for modularity, building up from something small and getting larger and so far. It’s just that I wouldn’t want to live in them. They’re too small.”

Others, though, seemed more willing to embrace a rough existence in a space settlement over the fantasies of space colonies. Karlton Johnson, an Arconic Inc. executive and a former Air Force officer, likened it to being deployed in the field, with few of the creature comforts of home. “I suspect, and I submit to you, that’s probably what this will be for 90 percent of the people who go forth and do some kind of space operations,” he said.

Speaking at a meeting consisting largely of space professionals and hardcore space advocates, Johnson argued for bringing in more people from outside the field to help shape the future of space settlement. “Did anybody here tonight sleep at a hotel that was designed by Boeing?” he asked. “In this room, we’re going to have to have an increase in the type of people that have a certain concept of what it means to live in space, knowing that, at first, it’s going to be pretty austere. But we want to get from austere to really cool.”

Another challenge to space settlement, and another reason for seeking broader audiences, is more fundamental one than any technical issue: why live in space? Most at the summit would like themselves to one day live in space, but just how many people would want to do so—as well as what their expectations would be about living conditions, risk, and compensation—was a topic largely unexplored at the meeting.

Globus, who has advocated for habitats in equatorial low Earth orbits, offering radiation protection from the magnetosphere while avoiding the charged particles of the South Atlantic Anomaly, thinks the stepping stone to space settlements is space hotels. “A hotel in space has solved not quite all but most of the problems associated with building a settlement,” he said.

But that meeting’s focus on technical and policy issues, and less on whether space settlement is that interesting to the wider public, suggests that one of those next steps on the path to space settlement isn’t necessarily a new launch vehicle or habitat or even a public-private partnership to support development of those systems. It’s a compelling story about why humans can, and should, live beyond Earth.

On the second day of the summit, former NASA administrator Charlie Bolden sat in on one of the sessions. (He was a speaker at a luncheon for the summit later that day, although his comments there weren’t devoted specifically to the question of space settlement.) When the panel discussion veered briefly into the area of general public interest, he chimed in.

“We have to be storytellers, and sometimes in our technical world, we think we can just do what we do and everything else will happen,” he said. “If we all don’t become storytellers, we’re going to lose.”

That compelling story of space settlement has yet to be told.


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