FUELSPACE

FuelSpace is a blog focusing on the emerging commercial space economy, space exploration, energy production, technology and innovation. We also cover the skills that enable great achievements in these areas including sales and persuasion, productivity, self-discipline, and leadership.

The Importance of Space Exploration: Why We Must Press On

Last week was hard for the commercial Space industry. An Orbital Sciences Antares rocket headed to the International Space Station exploded shortly after launch. Then Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, the first craft built specifically for space tourism, crashed in the desert after firing its main rocket engine, killing the co-pilot and severely injuring the pilot. What followed was a media flurry surrounding the "deep uncertainty" of the commercial space industry, and this article explaining why Virgin Galactic is a apparently a waste of time. So...listen up people. 

In the distant future, our sun will expand and destroy the planet we call home.  Image Credit: Wikipedia - Future of Earth

In the distant future, our sun will expand and destroy the planet we call home. Image Credit: Wikipedia - Future of Earth

Space exploration is one of the most important endeavors our civilization will undertake. If we are unable to extend our reach into the solar system (and beyond), then humanity is destined for extinction. If humanity cannot develop a method to reliably track and redirect asteroids, we will go extinct. If we find a way not to destroy this planet we call home, and we decide to simply enjoy our time here, we will go extinct.  Earth has an expiration date. Yes, it is (hopefully) true that that date is very, very far into the future, but it is a date regardless. Ultimately we need that time to develop the technologies that will allow us to meet the insanely difficult challenge we are up against. But we have to get started today, and we must keep moving forward, forever.  This is one movement that cannot end. It is the only way to ensure the continuation of our species. The hoard of billionaires investing in space exploration are not doing it because it is some hobby, as the media likes to claim. They do it because they view the world on a longer horizon than only their short lives. They see a civilization with a much greater destiny. 

Virgin Galactic's goal is to commercialize space travel through selling tickets to wealthy individuals. This is very similar to Space Adventures, founded by Eric Anderson in 1998, which helps coordinate visits to the ISS by private citizens.  Space Adventures still operates today and Eric Anderson has gone on to co-found Planetary Resources, one of the first private space mining ventures. Saying that commercial space travel should not involve the sale of tickets to wealthy individuals is one of the most short-sighted statements you can make.  ANY activity that creates a sustainable business around space travel of any kind is worthwhile.  Why?  Do you really think Virgin Galactic has the ultimate goal of "being a roller-coaster ride for the rich and famous"?  Of course not.  That is the same as saying SpaceX's ultimate goal is to put a plant on mars. It is not the goal, it is just the beginning of a much greater journey. The hard part about commercial space activity is developing a business case around something that is incredibly expensive, dangerous, and difficult. We are just now beginning to understand what these industries are and how they will generate a profit for investors. Virgin Galactic focuses on selling tickets to wealthy individuals because this is the path of least resistance.  It is a great place to start, and this is no less noble than the other commercial space endeavors currently underway.  Space-capitalism works just like terrestrial-capitalism. You must start somewhere. Space tourism will play an important role in the commercial space economy for the simple fact that it will be one (of many) economic drivers that enables future space exploration technology.  Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic will continue to push the envelope to make the impossible...possible. Having a rocketplane in humanity's technological arsenal is a good idea, regardless of how we get there and how it is funded.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two.  Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two. Image Credit: Virgin Galactic

Robert Zubrin lays out one of the best cases for the exploration of frontiers in his book  The Case for Mars .   Image Credit: Wikipedia

Robert Zubrin lays out one of the best cases for the exploration of frontiers in his book The Case for Mars.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

Space exploration creates incredible business opportunities both here at home and in deep space. History has proven that frontiers and exploration generate waves of technological advancement. The American western expansion was followed by the greatest explosion in innovation the world had ever seen.  In a short 100 years after this frontier was closed,we saw the electrification of cities, telephones and radios were released, and aviation grew from the Wright Brothers to the safe commercial airline travel. We saw the introduction of interplanetary spacecraft, antibiotics, computers, television and nuclear power. A frontier is a core component of human advancement.  Unfortunately, there are no terrestrial frontiers left on this planet, we have colonized the majority of the planet. Looking to history again, we know that civilizations without frontiers fall into stagnation, decline and resource wars. This idea lies at the very heart of commercial space exploration. Having a lofty goal and an unexplored place to expand into is the deepest driver of innovation that exists. Along the way, we will develop new technologies that will enrich humanity on a day-to-day basis. We will set the bar higher than we ever have, and we will find incredible business opportunities along the way. Just look at the moon race, the number of technological spin-offs that resulted from the program is staggering. If a technology is cordless, fireproof, automated, or lightweight and strong, there is a good chance it was born at NASA. 

So tuck yourself in, this is going to be a long journey. The commercial space industry is here to stay. It is led and staffed by people who want to leave a mark on civilization itself and literally reach for the stars. They will not back down due to failures, and we cannot let them. To ensure the survival of our species, we must press on.  

Five Ideas to Utilize the Vast Resources of Space

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is one of the most cost-effective launch vehicles in the world.  Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is one of the most cost-effective launch vehicles in the world. Image Credit: SpaceX

The ability to deliver resources from space into Earth's orbit is on the horizon. Technological advances in launch systems, robotics, machine learning, laser communication, and 3D printing are converging to open the final frontier for business. Lifting things out of earth orbit is expensive. No secret there.The SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket can deliver up to 28,000 lbs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for around $60 million.  An astonishing improvement on the $250 million + price tag of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) launch. In either case this is still very expensive. Reusable rockets will hopefully arrive very soon and will lower launch costs exponentially. However, one of the best solutions to reducing launch costs is this: do not launch things that can already be found in space. Source your resources from the very place you are headed in order to reduce costs. This is called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and it is a concept much older than space travel.  Early explorers in every phase of human expansion lived off the land as they traveled.  It is simply not feasible to bring all of your supplies with you when you are exploring the unknown. This concept still applies today, and the commercial space industry is about to take it to a whole new level. 

The sun provides 24 hour power in space, and the extreme cold enables low cost storage of cryogenic materials such as fuel (free AC). It is also technically feasible to source essential materials from both the moon and asteroids. Water is the most obvious target because it can be split into Hydrogen and Oxygen, the two components of high-efficiency rocket fuel. Shackleton Energy has announced plans to mine the water-ice from the permanently shadowed areas of the moon. They plan to use it as a feedstock for orbital fueling depots, which we discuss below. Lunarcrete, which is a form of concrete produced from lunar regolith, could be used as a building material on the moon or elsewhere. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to mine asteroids for water and minerals that can be delivered to Earth orbit. Many near-Earth asteroids require less energy to reach the moon, and hold immense amounts of water locked away as ice, as well as a huge array of valuable metals and raw materials. Combine these resources with advances in 3D printing and robotics, and you have a recipe for the space construction industry.  Deep Space Industries plans to launch an orbital 3D printer, and SpiderFab is developing robotic spiders that use 3D printing arms to create orbital structures. Made in Space beat them both to the punch by delivering a 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) last September. Construction on Earth is big business... one of the biggest actually. By 2020, the terrestrial construction industry is expected to top $4.8 trillion. So just imagine what will happen when this industry is freed from the bonds of gravity.   

Assume that all of these incredible advances in space technology come to pass.  What would you do with affordable raw materials, fuel, 3D printers, and a robotic construction staff available in space? Here are some ideas, but we'd love to hear yours!  

1. Orbital Fueling Depots

"Orbital Fueling Inc., making your space dreams come true since 2020"  This might be the tagline of a future orbital fueling services provider. Orbital fueling depots will be the second greatest leap in space capabilities in the next century, preceded only by fully reusable launch vehicles. Once you can refuel vehicles in orbit, the space game changes substantially. A Falcon 9 rocket uses $200,000 in fuel just to get to LEO.  If you can remove the need to lift fuel from earth, economics begin to change very quickly.  Missions to Mars quickly drop in cost when we can refuel spacecraft in orbit. Exploration missions can increase spending on instrumentation instead of fuel, leading to new discoveries and better scientific ROI. Satellites can be designed for regular service, upgrade and refueling rather than the "one-and-done" method currently used by satellite producers. The possibilities are endless when we begin to fuel in orbit. 

A concept for an orbital fueling depot.  Image Credit: NASA

A concept for an orbital fueling depot.  Image Credit: NASA

2. Interplanetary Motherships

Once we have a reliable fueling station in orbit, the concept of motherships becomes feasible for the first time. Today we rarely consider this option in favor of launching directly from one planets surface to another. This choice is primarily driven by cost. However, once we have a space construction infrastructure in place, we can begin to build much larger interplanetary craft that are designed to operate solely in space. Motherships could shuttle colonists to Mars on a regular schedule, using reusable rockets and small passenger craft to deliver passengers to the ship prior to departure. Combined with emerging hibernation technologies, such craft would enable much longer manned missions to Europa or elsewhere in the solar system to search for life firsthand.  An alternative method to building a ship from scratch would be to hollow out an asteroid and turn it into a spacecraft. This approach comes with the added benefit of radiation shielding for humans as well as on-board fuel and raw materials to power the 3D printers that will be installed on the ship.

The Nautilus-X is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle that acts as a mothership in combination with the Orion crew capsule.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Nautilus-X is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle that acts as a mothership in combination with the Orion crew capsule. Image Credit: Wikipedia

3. Space Based Solar Arrays

Japan is planning to build orbital solar arrays to produce never-ending power to fuel their economy. The arrays would be positioned to collect power 24 hours a day and then beam the power back to a receiving station on earth via microwaves. This is not a far fetched sci-fi concept. It can be done. Space-based solar has been discussed for years due to its inherent advantages over terrestrial solar power. The sun never stops shining and you can take up huge amounts of real estate. There are only a handful of technological hurdles we would need to address to make this feasible. The single largest reason cited as opposition to space-based solar has been launch costs. Launching such a large structure from earth is simply too expensive. So, with construction crews and raw materials now available in space, is this a technology whose time may finally have arrived?  We think so. 

Space-based solar power arrays collect the sun's energy 24 hours a day and beam it back to earth using Microwaves.    Illustration: John MacNeill

Space-based solar power arrays collect the sun's energy 24 hours a day and beam it back to earth using Microwaves.  Illustration: John MacNeill

4. Expandable Commercial Space Stations

Bigelow aerospace will soon be delivering an inflatable habitat to the ISS, but this is only the beginning. Bigelow's future plans envision vastly larger depots, such as the 84-person Hercules station. These inflatable facilities are highly modular and can be built in stages. These systems are opening the door to replacing the ISS, selling space honeymoons, and enabling affordable commercial research labs. All of these stations will need water, fuel and supplies to operate.  If water and fuel can be delivered using the the space infrastructure envisioned above, we can further lower costs and improve the feasibility of such projects. 

The inflatable space station modules designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The inflatable space station modules designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace. Image Credit: Wikipedia

5. Orbital Server Farms

Big data requires server facilities that are also, well, big. These facilities are in a constant state of expansion in order to keep up with our rampant data production and processing needs. More data means more servers, and servers need power.  Lots of it.  Servers now account for an astonishing 10% of global electricity consumption, and this will continue to grow each year. They also need to be kept cool, leading to such facilities often being cited near water sources that can aid in the thermal management. Developing orbital server farms may be the solution to these problems.  Space based server farms take advantage of the deep cold of space and the near-infinite power of our nearest star.  Data can be processed and returned to earth using secure high-speed optical laser communications systems. 

These are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing. My hope is that these ideas are ultimately tame when compared to our future reality. We know from the rise of the internet that predicting the future uses of new platforms is difficult. Innovation requires us to set the table first, then we will see who really comes to dinner. The time has arrived to begin envisioning a future where space resources are readily available. What would you do when the entire solar system is open for business and you have all the resources you could ever need? Share your ideas with us!