AE 131

Elon Musk and Mars: Looking for a Snowball Effect

At the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico on 27 September 2016, Elon Musk revealed his plans for colonising Mars.

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What is he really trying to achieve?

My first reaction was to start picking on some of the crucial aspects of going to Mars which Musk had omitted to mention. They’re obvious enough:

  • Human adaptation to low gravity;
  • The lack of a sustainable life support system independent of Earth;
  • The problem of getting costs down at the same time as getting reliability up.

But then I listened to his talk again, and I realised I’d misunderstood what he was trying to achieve.

The huge Mars launch rocket and spacecraft which he described in some detail are mind-bogglingly seductive, but they’re really a bit of a side-track. Recall some of the key points Musk made in his talk.

What Elon Musk is doing here is not to try to go it alone to Mars, or to solve all the problems himself. He’s absolutely not trying to compete with NASA. Clearly his plans conflict with NASA’s existing “Journey to Mars”, but that programme is actually pretty vague, NASA’s not a monolithic entity, and I think it must be assumed that he has support from within NASA, only not from those parts of NASA most directly interested in the Orion-SLS programme.

What he’s trying to do is to start a snowball effect to which a variety of entities from both the private sector and the government, and in a variety of countries around the world, can all contribute. He’s trying to build a coalition.

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.

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AE 130

The Citizens’ Debate on Space for Europe

What’s the difference between the space agency and other departments of government such as health, social security or defence? Perhaps the difference is that, to the public, the purpose of the more traditional ministries is self-evident, while that of space is not so obvious at all?

The same would be true of research councils, of course, or of public support for the arts. Yet the space agencies have big big ambitions. Extremely costly ambitions: to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars, and set up permanent scientific bases on those worlds.

If their political masters are not willing to put up the funds, then the agencies must go behind the politicians’ backs and address the taproot of democratic power: the people. That, at any rate, seems to be the logic behind the European Space Agency’s new exercise in public consultation, the Citizens’ Debate on Space for Europe.

On 10 September, groups of members of the general public were assembled in capitals in all of ESA’s 22 member states simultaneously. In the UK the event took place in Edinburgh. I took the Caledonian sleeper train north to play my part as a typical (!) citizen.

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.

AE 129

Creating a self-sustaining desert civilisation: Aridopolis

Inspiring talk about Mars – but what will the strategy be?

The National Geographic Channel has announced a new TV series dramatising the first manned flight to Mars in 2033.

If you want to live here…

If you want to live here…

The very first flight is supposed to lay the groundwork for a permanent human settlement on the Red Planet. In order to manage and operate that and subsequent flights, the film-makers have teamed up two fictional organisations: the International Mars Science Foundation and the commercial Mars Mission Corporation . The government–commercial partnership is a promising sign. But I am keen to see what their strategy will be. I hope they are not simply assuming that an Apollo-style dash for Mars will lead to anything but disappointment and cancellation?

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.

AE 128

Lecture by Professor Wörner: United Space in Europe

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Prof. Wörner at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, 19 July 2016

The Director General of the European Space Agency, Professor Johann-Dietrich Wörner, gave an eloquent and uplifting talk at Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society on 19 July.

But was the inspiration just a little too starry-eyed to make political sense?

While the public is focused on society’s domestic problems, and while at the same time the cost of each astronaut ticket to the Moon is up in the hundreds of millions of euros, Moon Village will remain an impractical dream, and Europe will continue to be no more than a junior partner in international space projects.

It would be a shame if no way were found out of this cul de sac, for Professor Jan Wörner has an infectious enthusiasm and deserves to see his ideas come to fruition.

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.

AE 126

The Pillar versus the Pyramid

The cartoons presented at the ESA workshop

I drew these cartoons for my presentation at the European Space Agency’s Exploration Workshop at Edinburgh in January 2007. I still think they make a good point, despite the fact that ESA was clearly not paying attention.

Microsoft Word - Ashworth_Edinburgh_talk.doc

My argument was that the traditional space architecture would be unstable and liable to collapse at any time. Thus one single space station, followed by one single Moon base, followed by one single Mars base. This is the pillar (first cartoon).

Of course a space agency would justify the pillar architecture by pointing out that they would have neither the need nor the funds to operate more than one space station. In fact they would be more likely to want to scrap the orbital station in order to free up funds for going to the Moon, and scrap any presence on the Moon in order to be able to afford Mars.

In other words, they would assume that only government scientists have any business spending time in space.

A stable, sustainable architecture, by contrast, would require a pyramid architecture (second cartoon)…

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.

AE 125

The Way Forward

Towards meaningful progress in spaceflight

Following my criticisms of the space plans of the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, it’s heartening to read an interview with a man who has his plans clearly set on the right track.

Jeff-Bezos-Quote-2

By the “right” track I mean a trajectory leading towards the sustainable growth and progress of civilisation into the Solar System, with all that implies for the long-term security and further unfolding of our human heritage. By the “wrong” track I mean spaceflight regarded as a specialist monopoly hobby of rich governments, sending small numbers of machines and astronauts on occasional high-cost exploration missions in the service of science, prestige, spinoff and “inspiration”, but producing no permanent, let alone growth-capable, extraterrestrial infrastructure.

For the progressive view, read Alan Boyle’s interview with Jeff Bezos at the 32nd Space Symposium, reported on GeekWire.

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.

AE 123

When Will Jan Wörner Get His Moon Village?

Is it yet time to return astronauts to the Moon?

One of the great formative experiences of my childhood was following the news about the Apollo Moon missions. I waited up all night to see the live TV of the first moonwalk in July 1969. So do I want to see a return to the Moon? Of course I do!

ESA’s concept for a lunar base

ESA’s concept for a lunar base (Science Photo Library)

And as I am the author of a full-length science fiction novel partly set in and around the future lunar base of Selenopolis in Mare Foecunditatis, as well as in Sinus Medii at the centre of the lunar nearside, you can believe me when I say I’ve given these matters some thought!

Now Jan Wörner, Director General of the European Space Agency, has been speaking about his plan for a Moon Village – a permanent, manned base station on the Moon… much as I would love to see astronauts walking on the Moon again, I have to conclude that Professor Wörner is going out on a limb here, pushing his dreams way beyond any realistic political or entrepreneurial support.

Read the full post on the Astronautical Evolution website.