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Mars base
NASA and others need to carefully define what is considered “space development” to enable efforts like bases on Mars. (credit: SpaceX)

What is space development?


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The current NASA program of space “exploration” consists primarily of developing its own heavy-lift transport system, using commercial providers for its existing launch needs, operating a scientific space station in low Earth orbit, and designing, building and operating a large variety of robotic spacecraft throughout the solar system and beyond. It is planning to land payloads on the Moon in the near future, along with an occasional short human visit to cislunar space and the Moon. Eventually there are hopes (but no concrete plans) to establish a lunar base and visit Mars in the more distant future. Space development activities, though, can only occur at permanents bases and facilities. Current NASA plans would only start this phase sometime in the mid-2030’s.

The essence of space development is to extend human activities beyond the Earth into the solar system and the creation of permanent or semi-permanent human bases and facilities in space and on ‘planetary’ surfaces.

The only real exploration currently being done is by the robotic spacecraft, in mapping and investigating the surfaces of the Moon, Mars, Venus, asteroids, and the outer solar system. This kind of exploration truly is vital to support future human operations on these worlds. (Gas giant planet “exploration” is more like scientific investigation, as there is no solid surface to explore on the gas giants themselves. Those moons away from high-level radiation belt areas do allow actual surface exploration.) Much of this program is determined by Congressional spending authority. Some of NASA’s programs are dominated by science, one of the main justifications given by NASA. This includes science at the space station and also by robot spacecraft, some of which support astronomy (like the very successful Webb telescope), Earth observation, and “space science” (the space “environment”.) These invaluable scientific efforts are all grouped under the “Space Exploration” name.

The next space “program” phase should include and focus on space development. Those activities should be executed by both the government and private companies, where the private companies will have an increasing share of the action. The rationale for moving to a new phase is that for the most relevant rocky objects like the Moon and Mars, enough exploration has been done that we can start development of those worlds in some areas, even while more detailed exploration and surveys of them must continue. We do not continue to “explore” well-known areas once use and development can begin. Explorers discovered the Cumberland Gap but, once discovered, it began to be used by our pioneers for transportation as part of the Wilderness Road.

However, we need to define “Space Development” in concrete terms, to differentiate it from the current NASA program. To a large degree, it would involve extensive human operations in space, in and beyond Earth orbit, and would require the launch of many heavy payloads from the Earth to initiate and support those activities. The essence of space development is to extend human activities beyond the Earth into the solar system and the creation of permanent or semi-permanent human bases and facilities in space and on ‘planetary’ surfaces. For now, this would include the Moon, Mars, and asteroids. This implies the use of standardized and reusable crew, cargo, and tanker vehicles in most situations. This also implies growth in human space activities and business, instead of activities remaining at a fixed plateau as dictated by federal budgets. Such growth also implies growth in the infrastructure needed to support human space operations, including both launch and communications. It would augment, not replace, current space activities. To be clear, the current robotic exploration program is vital to the future of space development, but the latter path would imply robust human presence in an operationally diverse basis and with humans in multiple locations off the Earth.

To enable a sustained presence in space, missions supporting space development should be efficient. “Flags and footprints” type missions are not efficient.

Examples of such activities would include searching for in-situ minerals; mining, purifying, and smelting metals; fabricating pressurized structures from those metals; synthesizing polymers (plastics); producing usable volatile materials such as water and carbon compounds, and from them breathable air and rocket propellant in quantity; creating safe, radiation-free habitats for human crews and other workers; and conducting construction, science, and repair operations with humans in space and on planetary surfaces. Such activities would require an efficient in-space transport system with propellant depots, both on the surface and in orbit. It would require the use of a variety of launch vehicles and in-space craft, including tankers, cargo, and crew vehicles.

Robust bases should be able to use in-situ materials fairly soon after being established, to reduce the amount of materials and supplies that would otherwise subsequently need to be transported from Earth. This means the equipment to use the in-situ materials needs to be developed before building the base and brought to the base soon after establishment, if not sooner. Similarly, agricultural techniques need to be developed to reduce crew dependence on food from Earth, along with associated recycling of everything possible, including the inedible parts of plants. This means the equipment to allow on-site food production must be developed and provided with the initial base equipment. Research and development for reliable long-term life support is still needed, including managing the abrasive lunar, and slightly abrasive Martian, dust with toxic perchlorates that threatens human and machine health, and determining the real requirements for long-term human presence in low-gravity environments. It would also include development of analysis tools that can be used at a Mars science base so that many kinds of sample analysis won’t require an expensive and time-consuming trip to Earth. Good and robust mission and base design with a human crew can greatly expand and extend scientific investigation and results in many fields.

Such routine and frequent space transport operations would require a higher degree of reliability and backup transport options than are currently envisioned. A robust lunar or Mars base, for example, would provide an alternate means of return to orbit in case of vehicle failure. Redundant systems are needed in each crew vehicle to save crew members from such vehicle failures, such as crew cabin capsules with their own propulsion. Rescue vehicles would be available to reach crews stranded away from the base. Bases would have a large supply of food and life support equipment so that a crew could survive a missed return flight opportunity.

To enable a sustained presence in space, missions supporting space development should be efficient, minimizing cost and the number of vehicles needed to transport a large amount of equipment and supplies to the destination. “Flags and footprints” type missions are not efficient, providing very limited crew time for surface operations, and also often raise the risk to crews by minimizing the vehicle redundancy level due to the cost of the non-reusable vehicles typically employed in such mission designs. Continuing investment (as dictated by Congress) in expendable rocket systems is about as inefficient as can be imagined, as almost any expendable rocket is effectively obsolete before being designed. The high cost of giant expendable rockets takes away a lion’s share of the funding needed for actual space development. Where a robotic mission can accomplish more than one task, especially where one of those tasks is in support of space development, it should not be subordinated to “pure science” tasks.

Space development also implies at least some sense of urgency in terms of scheduling and completing operations. Most science activities, on the other hand, have no sense of urgency, except for medical science and during competition among companies and countries. Earth faces a variety of threatening problems. We have the climate crisis, recurring military crises, potential threats from asteroids and comets, along with the risk that terrorists may start development of synthetic infective agents which could be inimical to life. Since human civilization, and life itself, only exists on Earth, protecting the Earth requires a robust human presence in space, providing a very large and clean energy source such as space solar power and enabling the diversion of threatening asteroids. Construction of potential future space settlements also depend on robust space development. These could provide backup locations for humans and life to survive if a catastrophe struck the Earth.

The current competition with China for “domination” of space should be acknowledged, and should be also be responded to in an expeditious way, but without any intention of dominating ourselves.

NASA’s science programs includes science done at the space station and by robotic spacecraft. Like most scientific investigations, almost none of it done at NASA is conducted in an urgent fashion, and without too much regard for cost and efficiency. Little of science at NASA supports space development, so more science and engineering work should be done to support development, including mineral prospecting and energy sources such as nuclear fission and nuclear thermal propulsion, with a greater focus on surface science instead of space science. Also, instead of merely looking for other life in the solar system with robots, we should also be working to protect and preserve the life we already know exists here. For space development, practical and applied science should take a larger role versus pure science.

There is an organizational and planning side to this. In addressing the means of expediting space development, programs to provide support for private and government missions to planetary surfaces should plan ahead so that information and prototype equipment, like that needed for extracting lunar volatiles, is ready as soon as the possibility of a mission or operation occurs. If you do something expeditiously, it means you are ready to take the next step as soon as the previous step is completed. Operations by SpaceX at Boca Chica, Texas, are a good example of the expeditious approach. The opposite means starting to plan and design for the next step only after the previous step is completed. If we had done Apollo this way (developing one stage at a time), instead of the “all-up” approach that was used to such great success in the 1960s, it would have taken two decades to accomplish the goal. The example of space solar power (SSP) as an urgent goal is a good one. Now that we are about to have a launch system capable of launching enough mass to GEO to create a practical SSP system, NASA, possibly in cooperation with the Department of Energy and private companies, should show the same level of urgency in this area as is being shown by several other countries. Energy dependence on foreign suppliers is a major risk to our basic international policy positions and operations.

The federal government itself has no sense of urgency in planning space missions, again partly due to a fickle Congress, which is part of the reason why the non-expeditious approach is followed. This does not mean every program has to be fast and furious, but efforts to create long-lead-time items, for which other efforts will soon be waiting, should be done this way on a selective basis. Lack of solid knowledge of the surface hardness at the lunar polar cold trap zones, for example, is holding up design of volatile extraction equipment. There may also be no effort started yet to create such equipment until a landing at a cold trap zone is accomplished.

The current competition with China for “domination” of space should be acknowledged, and should be also be responded to in an expeditious way, but without any intention of dominating ourselves, but rather by engaging in fair practices for space resources. However, not all countries play fair, and frequently the early bird does get the worm. We should declare our intentions to have access to a fair share of such resources. Such declarations often help prevent conflicts by making our intentions clear.

Other NASA missions and operations should assist and coordinate with companies engaged in space development, not hinder them. The cancellation of the Mars Ice Mapper is clearly a hindrance, since it would have provided precise locations and depths for Mars ground ice deposits. Without a large proven source of ground ice at a landing site, establishing an initial Mars base for science or development would not be practical for anyone, since no vehicles could take off again from that site. Focused government research programs should contribute to the private efforts, but with clearly defined goals, fixed contract costs, and time limits for completion. Unless the collaboration is with a specific company, all information produced should be made public.

Here is a checklist to help anyone tell if space development is occurring as part of any human space activity.

  • Expands the human economic sphere beyond the Earth and beyond LEO.
  • Results in permanent bases or industrial sites with mostly continuous activity.
  • Results in growth of human space activity.
  • Operation uses mostly reusable, standardized transport elements.
  • Greater focus on activities on planetary (including lunar) surfaces.
  • Actual in-situ materials use such as metal extraction and fabrication as part of base development.
  • Much of the activity is performed by private companies.
  • Bases and facilities are robust, with significant safety and health provisions for crew members.
  • Some sense of urgency exists, such as being done in an efficient and expeditious manner.
  • Applied science taking a larger role compared to “pure” science.

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