Spacefaring: Our Real Prospects for Homesteading Off-Earth?

By Richard Mains, Posted 08/10/09


Our Nearest Neighbor, NASA

"Our Nearest Neighbor" Source: NASA

Judging the prospects for human settlement beyond Earth requires assessment of elements such as; the rationale for, the technical, biological and social readiness for, the political will for, and the funding resources available, for doing so. I focus here primarily on the rationale for and technical and biological capabilities for human settlement. Even that is a large topic. Also, I fully acknowledge the advisability of using, as possible, advanced robotics with the “virtual presence” and remote manipulation they can provide to assist in all aspects of human settlement. It is envisioned that they will be the initial explorers and risk analysis agents that preceed humans. Subsequently, when teamed with humans, they can help create the infrastructure to support people and robots in a very challenging environment and greatly facilitate space commercialization opportunities and applications. However, robotics will have to be addressed later.

A common view within space advocacy groups and the human exploration elements of NASA is that “spacefaring” on a space platform traveling for months beyond Earth, a large asteroid or another planet like the Moon would logically occur in stages which can help us operationally define this vague term. The first would be “sortie” or short visits to demonstrate the feasibility of getting there, briefly living and working there, and coming back. We did that long ago during Apollo. The second would be to establish an “outpost” with imported facilities and supplies sufficient to stay longer and test the limits of people and systems to operate together safely and efficiently. Apollo did none of that except to provide a sporty “lunar buggy” that extended human travel distances for exploration. The third stage would be to establish a permanently occupied “settlement” of facilities, resources and people who would stay for fixed periods and then be replaced as we do now on the International Space Station (ISS). The fourth stage could be called “frontier” where people move to their new home assuming it will have sufficient resources, with ongoing related processing efforts, to provide mostly local “life support” for themselves, and perhaps in the future for a growing population that might start with plants and animals in artificial ecosystems.

This staging when applied to spacefaring on the Moon provides a useful view of the “precursor” phase that has recently begun (remote exploration with lunar orbiters, crash-landing “excavators”, water "scouts", and lots of strategic analyses) and the R&D necessary to allow us to perhaps permanently inhabit the planet “next-door”. Much work would be required, with significant involvement by the entrepreneurial space sector in partnership with the government, to make the Moon habitable for short periods gradually extending in length. Many argue that spacefaring development work must be done in part on the ISS and then the Moon to make the costs and risks even close to being acceptable. There is an emerging view that considering the significant climate, energy, resource and Near-Earth Object (NEO) threats to our planet, the future of the human race may mandate off-Earth settlements. These might function as an alternate artificial ecosystem for humans and hopefully, also as a resource “base” for Earth-focused research, energy production, rare mineral extraction, and more. Along with potential commercial profits from development, this is the basic rationale for spacefaring, and Stephen Hawing and many of the NewSpace entrepreneurs are strong advocates for this view.

While attending the recent NewSpace 2009 Conference sponsored by the Space Frontier Foundation, I experienced a real surprise during a presentation focused on our readiness for human spacefaring.. It was as if a fresh breeze blew away the chronic fog and exposed a hidden reality. The clearer view was represented by James S. Logan, MD, currently an Aerospace & Occupational Medical Officer, at NASA JSC. Reality emerged with his frank assessment of the accumulated biomedical evidence associated with the health risks of long-duration human exposure to spaceflight the space environment on other planets, but his focus was the Moon.

The evidence presented (link is to a very similar presentation by Logan) was not new to me since I’ve been involved in space life sciences research and reporting of mission results for many years. What was truly new for me however, was that this highly-experienced NASA flight surgeon, currently employed by NASA, and a strong advocate for the value of human spaceflight, told the story about what he called, “The Elephant in the Room”. In this case the “elephant” was the infrequently discussed integrated biomedical evidence indicating that the combined dangers of microgravity (or perhaps 1/6th lunar gravity) and radiation exposure during long-duration habitation on a planet like the Moon or Mars, is so dangerous that it would be unethical to expose people to it with our current systems.

In talking with Logan after his presentation he reiterated that he was not speaking for NASA or the government, but only himself as a long-term specialist in this area (Board Certified in Aerospace Medicine, former Chief of Flight Medicine and Crew Surgeon at JSC for many Space Shuttle missions). His motivation is to put the evidence on the table so it can be better understood, discussed, and shared more openly in a constructive manner. He is clearly not trying to cause problems but does feel strongly that these major challenges need to be dealt with effectively. Indeed, for several years he has had a consulting company on the side, Space Medicine Associates, Inc. staffed by a team with human biomedical and healthcare backgrounds. Their current tagline is “ Dedicated to the Health and Safety of the Personal Space Traveler”, so apparently they are also focused on commercial human spaceflight safety.

The obvious question, of course, is why isn’t this story being told by other NASA experts in this field too? After all, “spacefaring” leading to long-term human habitation on other worlds, is the implied, if not often-stated rationale for NASA’s human spaceflight program - is it not?. I expect we can all appreciate that Logan’s frank and open biomedical risk assessment and sharing of that story publically might be discouraged by some in NASA upper-level management.  A few might even consider it “career limiting”. It’s my view that NASA can no longer avoid such discussions and expect to maintain its credibility with the space biomedical research community and the informed public. Whatever the astronaut opinions are on this issue they must be highly-constrained since they are in a classic conflict of interest situation.   But they surely expect NASA to conttinue focusing on their long-term health and well-being.  Logan is an excellent spokesperson and good “bridge-builder” advocating responsible human spacefaring combined with more focus on the research, technical development, and collaborative action that needs to be done. 

Logan was asked what he thought was a great question by a listener, during a July 15, 2008 David Livingston interview on “The Space Show”.  The listener wanted to know about what enthusiasts for spacefaring could do that would be both responsible and helpful to their cause. Logan indicated that they should face the reality of the large body of biomedical evidence to date and encourage others to become informed too.  He thinks that is the first step toward then encouraging NASA to develop appropriate space exploration and development strategies based on what we know.  He suggested that it is essential to conduct ongoing biomedical research with animals, plants and humans to better understand countermeasures such as the use of artificial gravity and water and/or lunar regolith shielding from radiation hazards.

A recent article by Jeff Foust on The Space Review with the choice title, “Found Art” highlights the tendency of some spacefaring enthusiasts to blithely ignore these issues to the detriment of all. After the Mars Society recently testified to the Augustine Committee about the importance to the future of spacefaring of sending humans to Mars, one of several signs saying “Mars Direct: Cowards Return to the Moon” was found in a nearby restroom, presumably left behind by an advocate. An equally choice comment on this story was provided by one Malcolm Peterson…"Perhaps the advocates for human trips to Mars should afix an asterisk to their statements such as,...the Surgeon General has determined that human travelers to Mars should assume that they will not survive to return to Earth."  Logan is not alone. 

The prospects for true spacefaring do not look good right now, but fortunately we have several R&D paths opening up that may help improve them. A new capability to conduct microgravity and/or radiation-related research is emerging on suborbital space planes (4 min micro-g duration), low-cost microsats such as TubeSats, CubeSats, GeneSats are available (weeks in duration), a large free-flyer like the SpaceX Dragon Lab is being developed (controlled variable duration and return of payloads), and the ISS National Lab is receiving much-needed attention from White House and NASA review teams (weeks in duration with access to international research facilities and sufficient crew to do more research). Opportunities for helping humans to eventually live off-Earth are increasing and we need to use them wisely if we hope to truly become more spacefaring.


For the record

From: Donald F. Robertson, 08/17/09

Thanks, Richard, for your kind words. For the record, I agree that Space Tourism is one of two near-term routes forward for commercial space, COTS supply of the ISS being the second. I think that a lunar base should be our next goal in space because it would create a second large logistics market after the ISS, providing the political and commercial justification for a "lunar COTS." It could also lead to the earliest beginnings of trade in a commodity needed by every space project, as I discuss here, -- Donald

Robertson's "Reality Check" on Homesteading

From: Richard Mains, 08/17/09

Donald F. Robertson, a sage voice in space journalism, has provided an online link to his very insightful "Space Exploration: A Realty Check" article he published in 2006 in Space News. It looks at the realities of both human and robotic exploration challenges on another planet as compared to our long history of learning to voyage across the oceans. I generally support his views but also think that the entrepreneurial space commerce market will provide a business-oriented, practical path to gradually leaving and then living off-Earth - our ongoing challenge. Suborbital commercial human spaceflight is a great way to proceed with commercial human transport to LEO, then on to Bigelow habitats, perhaps with eventual translocation to a libration point or another planet. Steadily traveling along these paths we can learn much more about protecting humans and robots against microgravity and radiation effects and the life support challenges that have yet to be fully-tested, let alone proven. This article is well-worth reading and we thank Donald for sharing it.

Earth Issues and Space Settlement

From: Kathleen Connell, 08/15/09

I appreciate Roger's concerns, which I profoundly and professionally share, about terrestrial issues. However, I believe what the Review Panel is saying is that we can not reach the goals of Moon/Mars or settlement... with the current budget. What the previous Administration did was cannibalize the sciences to fund Constellation, and put in place a plan that was not funded. An unfunded mandate, and it puts NASA in the hole going forward, for, what? 50B? Or twice that. So that must be repaired right away, and the damage done. On the earth issues front, I know NASA does contribute massively to terrestrial solutions- would we know we have global warming without space based sensing? And the Space Sector will continue to contribute to Earth solutions if the exploration quest is economically and environmentally sustainable. A nation like the US should, when the economy recovers, be able to afford 1 percent of the budget or more to keep us in the lead in space. The NASA budget can also better contribute to terrestrial benefits when it is not wasted on innovation-free space craft that might collide and create a catastrophe. NASA should be beyond that risk profile-should it not? Or have we lost the national space engineering capability? I don't think so, but one wonders. In the end, we are now a planet with a human-made space sphere, just as we have a nature-made atmosphere. The Earth is no longer separate from space. We have to find away to make headway in this linked terrain. I am also going to be frank with this thread on a related subject. Global Warming is such a horrific reality that we are in the adaptation game as a civilization, and I think exploration and settlement is part of that adaption plan. I want to place huge emphasis on the word PART (there I used capital letters, so you know I am bloody serious), of the adaption plan. One of the problems in space conversations, that I found over 20 years in the business, is that Space Ones sometimes feel a need to come up with the whole solution. I don't know if this an excess of enthusiasm, a sense of responsibility, engineering hubris, reading science fiction, a hold over from Apollo big systems thinking- or a good way to raise funds! I can say with certainty that there is no one solution to global warming mitigation and adaptation and there are many solutions,in both policy and technology, that have nothing to do with space settlement. So rather than risk sounding silly, space settlement advocates would do well to know, and say, they are part of community of interests, not the only solution. To suggest space settlement is THE answer to global warming or the challenge to civilization is strange sounding,defeatist, will marginalize the initiative, and alienate struggling Americans who foot the bill for NASA, COTS and settlement. Hope everyone is doing GREAT. Thanks for your comments and insights, Roger.

Space Settlements and Priorities

From: Roger Arno, 08/15/09

Having (decades ago) cut my NASA teeth in the Mission Analysis Division, where we studied space stations, space colonies, planetary missions, lunar mining, and various advanced space exploration technologies as well as terrestrial applications, I would argue that the current lack of NASA focus on space settlements is based on cost and technology, not a lack of vision. Earlier this year I attended a Contact Conference held at Ames Research Center, where I was surprised to hear (a minority view) that the solution to the world’s growing social and environmental problems was space colonies. Not surprisingly, there was no discussion of the hundreds of thousands (or perhaps millions) of Shuttle launches (or the equivalent) that would be required to build and support an ecologically-viable orbiting space colony for thousands of inhabitants. Nor were the costs (financial, environmental, social, political, or otherwise, addressed. It may very well be that the future of the human race will require some cadre of people leaving Earth for other dwelling places. Based on the current debates over energy independence, the economy, climate, war, national security, education, and health care, the likelihood of a near-term consensus seems remote. I fear that if we cannot find solutions to these issues on Earth, we will never be able to develop a solution as complex as space settlements. Space has been a source of inspiration for humanity since humans were humans, and such will be true as long as humans exist. We have been greatly enlightened by the images and data from numerous space probes and telescopes. The interest in space travel has been great, at least since Jules Verne. I’m sure the interest will continue. Far be it for me to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for space settlements. I only hope the effort is based on realistic analyses, not just pie in the sky platitudes. A few years ago I did an analysis of the resource requirements for a lunar polar base designed to process and launch lunar water. Even this preliminary analysis indicates that significant challenges are involved.

Focus and Candor

From: Kathleen Connell, 08/14/09

I find two positive developments in this report compared to the last 8 years or so. First is the focus on Earth focused rationales for commercial space. This is an evolution from the profit rationale that by itself is simply not enough to spur long term commercial space. And Earth is the marketplace for commercial space products. Secondly, the return of candor and openess in matters of science and human exploration bioethics, in place of science repression and spin. Thanks for the important news about both developments. They suggest a space community that is not disconnected from a larger community of interests is still possible.

Spacefaring beyond Earth orbit

From: Joan Vernikos, 08/14/09

Excellent and article by Richard Mains and equally candid and grounded argument from Jim Logan as only he can make. Choosing a destination for human exploration even without settlement is not the problem. It will be a long time before we are anywhere near in a position from a scientific robotic prospecting, an engineering and especially from a biomedical perspective to have the knowledge base and technical reliability to make that decision. Twenty years of a concerted research effort is a conservative estimate in my view but we have no time to waste. However useful the array of space access vehicles that Richard lists might be, we have a short window of opportunity to use the ISS. With all its handicaps it is the only testing ground with the capability and size to enable rapid headway. If we are serious about our spacefaring intentions, we must recruit medical and technical skills nationwide in a unique cross-cutting approach with challenges of producing a truly closed life-support system that works at least three years in LEO without failure, a space suit that is what the wet suit is to the spongedivers' metal scaphandre, new wearable materials for radiation shielding, advances in genetic phenotyping to select crews on the basis of resistance and genetic engineering to resistance to radiation or bone loss. For sorties that return to Earth, artificial gravity must be revisited, and if excluded it should be done on rational grounds. Above all if we really plan to settle in a low gravity environment we may as well allow adaptation to proceed as long as we know from multigenerational studies the biological consequences on longevity or what may be the outcome of the survival of the fittest. As an aside, Mal Peterson who was NASA Comptroller in the 90s is not only a realist but the clearest thinker in NASA I ever came across.So his comment does not surprise me. We need more Petersons, Logans and Mainses in the space world. There is so much good stuff that can and needs to be done for the good of Space and Earth.

Settlement and Frontier...

From: Jim Logan, 08/13/09

NOTE: speaking only for myself and not for the agency... Excellent summary article! This is a tough topic to do justice to and Richard Mains rose to the challenge. The concepts of Sortie, Outpost, Settlement and Frontier hierarchy are well articulated. But contrary to prevailing views in the space community, they are not independent or mere ‘sequential add ons.’ If I am right about the biomedical constraints of Settlement and Frontier (I may not be but the evidence is on my side), then from a strategic point of view that changes what you do (as well as where you go and how you do it) for Sortie and Outpost missions. I basically agree with lunar advocates like Paul Spudis. There are many good reasons to return to the moon - - like learning how to ‘survive’ on another world. But here I feel compelled to insert the caveat “as long as we don’t kid ourselves that we will really be "living" (i.e. men, women and children in multiple generations) on the moon - - or Mars for that matter.” [There are better places for Settlement and Frontier that satisfy biomedical constraints but only if we start thinking outside the box]. The chief reason to send humans back to the moon is to learn how to optimize In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) which in my opinion means radiation protection, non-terrestrial materials extraction/processing, off-earth construction (i.e. civil engineering) and especially BIONEERING (the art and science of transforming local resources into the building blocks of stable ecosystems to support people, plants and animals). It can’t be Flags and Footprints this time.

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