Space commercialization: the view from 1966
by Jeff Foust
|This is an area where private enterprise can, of its own initiative, exploit these resources for the benefit of its stockholders, employees and society in general.|
Much has been written in the past about the technical problems of space flight and of space exploration. Many have examined certain of the sociological aspects of each. A great deal has been written about the occupation of space for reasons almost irrelevant to the properties of space. Speculation has taken place on the exploitation of the materials of planets and planetoids. Great advances have been made in our technical knowledge necessary to carry out each. Occupation of earth orbit has been accomplished.
Two direct practical uses have been made of earth orbit occupation, one, observation, and the other, communication. I will not concern myself here with the future of these, nor with possible military storage in space, since they exploit only the position in space, not its resources.
Because businessmen are concerned with the dollars provided by stockholders and retained earnings, we must here limit ourselves to the areas of space exploitable by present technology and by presently-available amounts of money. I will, therefore, limit this discussion to cislunar space; to the smaller orbits where the required resources are available.
This is an area where private enterprise can, of its own initiative, exploit these resources for the benefit of its stockholders, employees and society in general, with little or no danger of monopoly, exhaustion of those resources, or injury to segments of the population.
I do not minimize the opportunities for research inherent in the facilities proposed. In my own business, these would be undertaken when required for maintenance of, or expansion of, an established business venture.
I have confined my remarks, however, to exploitation on the basis of today's technology.
Let us catalogue the resources of space which are of interest to industry. No claim for completeness is made, only that the list is sufficiently attractive to engage the interest of all segments necessary to exploitation at a very early date.
I will discuss the exploitation of these resources in various orders and combinations as required for application to commercial enterprises, not as separate entities.
We are so familiar with a gravitational environment and with the many benefits to society and to industry provided by gravity that we are prone to take them for granted, and to utilize them without realizing their importance. Conversely, we must examine the consequences and values of a total lack of gravitational forces.
One of the simplest and most useful consequences is the dimensional stability of structures. Maintenance of the relative positions of a complex of instruments or machinery would require only minimal connection and strength. Rotation of a complex would still further reduce requirements for stiffening load-bearing members. It permits planning of industrial complexes measured in cubic miles rather than in square feet, as on earth. This may have important consequences, as it releases facility planners from the gravitational limitations of earth. Some of the structures of earth are of such size and cost that the limits of terrestrial possibility are becoming visible.
Vacuum, unlimited in extent, of much higher quality than that obtainable on earth and free from particulate and gaseous contamination opens new possibilities for manufacturing in space. An example might be the manufacture of microcircuits.
Since the advent of the philosophy of microcircuitry in 1951, great changes have taken place in electronics. Much greater changes lie in the future. The philosophy can and will be extended far beyond electronics into the areas of manufacture of much of the hard goods of commerce.
|We must examine the consequences and values of a total lack of gravitational forces.|
The microcircuitry concept merely replaces assembly of components by assembly of atoms or small particles. Its application to electronics collected a number of well-known technologies to produce useful monolithic circuits. Extreme reliability and small size have been almost inevitable bonuses. The multiple use of structural, chemical and electrical properties of each atom leads to significant economies and capabilities. Many millions of dollars are being invested in this area, and, as a result, the industry is undergoing a revolution.
Possibly a microcircuitry factory will be the first to be put in orbit because of its highly developed technology, its drive toward automation and the low cost of transportation of its materials and products.
The same philosophy can readily be applied to complex structures of many kinds where fabrication costs are high, specifications exacting, and multiple use of components impractical. Alloys, mixtures and graded transitions from one material to another are possible and common in microcircuitry.
As the technology is applied to complex structures of significant size, the cost of vacuum chambers will become prohibitive. Removal of facilities to space will avoid these limitations.
The degree of vacuum attainable within the atmosphere is quite limited. Efforts to improve our vacuum systems have reached the point where significant expenditures produce only insignificant improvements. The vacuum of space is many orders better than any attained on earth. The possibilities for product improvement by the use of better vacuum must be large, but to date they have not been explored.
Particulate and gaseous contamination are so widespread and usual that industry today gives little thought to them. The discovery of ductile tungsten resulted from the exclusion of oxygen, an undetected component of "ordinary" tungsten. Thin film technology and microbial culture technology require unique cleanliness. The cost of "clean rooms" has become quite large and the result questionable. Space provides uncontaminated volumes ready-made.
Opportunities for working freely with extremes of temperature are abundant in space.
Superconductivity on a scale inconceivable on earth is possible in space. Many uses for magnetic fields have been suggested but laid aside because of the high cost of cryogenics.
|The possibilities for product improvement by the use of better vacuum must be large, but to date they have not been explored.|
In space, only shields to exclude radiation are required to attain the same low temperatures throughout a large volume. A structure or space in the shadow of an efficient photoelectric generator surface already possesses this characteristic. Little further cost would be incurred to utilize it. Cryogenic processes based on current technology could be carried out on large scale in space.
Temperature in space has many quite different meanings. It may be described and, for some purposes, used as though it were millions of degrees. Simply exposing processing equipment to the sun's radiation produces high temperatures, depending on the reflectivity of the surface and the means used to conserve heat. Concentrating additional sunlight on equipment raises temperatures to areas quite difficult to obtain on earth. Many commercial processes await the availability of such temperatures on a continuous basis.
Very high temperature gradients exist between the surfaces of materials with one side exposed to radiation, the other to space. Rotation about an axis in the plane of the material produces alternating gradients. Lack of aerodynamic friction permits rapid rotation of thin sheets. This might provide basic AC as well as useful chemical and metallurgical processes.
The possibilities of high velocity processes are only now being investigated. Some have extremely interesting commercial potential. Aerodynamic limitations have been avoided to a slight degree at almost prohibitive cost and with consequent contamination. In the vacuum of space, many useful high velocity processes would be possible. Velocities equal to those attained in explosive formation of metals could be produced and maintained continuously. This would permit building structures of particles far larger than the atoms of microcircuitry, but achieving many of the same ends.
Collision pressure produced by particles of controlled velocity would produce predictable and useful results, such as perforation, imbedment, local changes in crystalline structure, and so on.