- Paul B. Huter
Paul B. Huter
Aerospace Engineering Consultant
Paul Benedict Huter
Solving one space mission challenge at a time!
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Paul B. Huter replied:
As humans, we have always been explorers. From Mesopotamia, we have spread to every corner of our planet as we have sought new experiences. Over the last 10,000 years, the history of humanity has been driven by a desire to see what is beyond the horizon. In that same time, we have looked to the heavens and wondered what lies beyond our protective atmosphere. The original "Space Race" between the United States and the Soviet Union demonstrated just how far humans were able to go when backed by political power. While the scientific and engineering outcomes of the period from the mid-1950s to 1970 revolutionized humanity and our ability to explore, it was the political goals that drove that exploration in space.
When Apollo 17 left the Moon in December 1972, the world the astronauts returned to was very different than the world of 1957 when Sputnik was launched. The joint Apollo-Soyuz missions paved the way for cooperation between governments in space, which ultimately culminated in the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS continues to demonstrate what international cooperation in space is capable of delivering, and the Artemis Program, led by NASA but involving a myriad of international partners, is the next step.
While NASA has long expressed a desire to send astronauts to Mars, that desire has never moved beyond discussions. Following the Columbia disaster in February 2003, NASA began to seriously look beyond the success of the Space Shuttle Program and make plans for the future of manned space exploration. Over the last 20 years, these plans have been in a near-constant state of flux, and have included returning to the Moon and using those missions as a stepping stone to get to Mars. Yet, no definitive Mars Program has been developed.
Meanwhile, other governments, namely China, have also expressed their desire to send people to Mars. At the same time, private companies have made statements about missions to Mars. However, none of these statements, whether from governments or companies, have laid definitive plans or a roadmap to achieve the goal of "boots on Mars".
NASA continues to work with other space agencies to move the Artemis Program forward, and talk continues about using the Moon as a starting point for getting to Mars. But things remain different than they did in the middle of the 20th century. At this time, there is no "national pride" driving manned space programs. There is no "public awe" associated with riding rockets beyond Earth's atmosphere. Space Shuttle launches stopped being broadcast on public television in the 1990s, and most people are unaware of what people are doing in Earth orbit.
Despite the allure to private companies associated with sending tourists into space, there remains little public backing for such missions. It is billionaires who buy tickets to the ISS, while average people the world over have little desire, much less the finances, to go to space. Yes, the cost of getting "stuff" into orbit continues to decrease, thanks to capitalism at work. But the cost for a private company to send people to Mars remains prohibitively high.
What will be needed to send humans to Mars? Will international cooperation among governments be enough to formalize a plan to go to Mars? What will be the benefit of people walking on Mars (what can people do that advanced robots cannot)? These, and other questions need to be addressed before serious consideration can be given to landing humans on another planet.
The cost to send people to Mars is not just financial. Years of planning are required, which means the desire to carry out a mission must not wane over decades. Yes, a large-scale program like that seen during the Space Race would mobilize the resources necessary to accomplish the goal on a much shorter timescale, but government support for such a goal is nonexistent. NASA's budget peaked around 4% of the U.S. government budget in the 1960s and has decreased to less than 1% in the 21st century. As has been shown by the U.S. shouldering the vast majority of the financial cost of the ISS, international partner governments are unable to make up the shortfall.
The global political climate has shifted dramatically in the last several years. But the fact remains that, while space is considered a new frontier for proving a nation's capabilities in engineering and military power, sending people to Mars is still not seen as something that will benefit a country. The cost continues to far outweigh any perceived benefit.
Will people ever walk on Mars? Most definitely. Will it happen in the 2030s? Probably not. Yes, a private company could send a couple of billionaires to Mars as a public relations stunt, but that is unlikely. The fact remains that unless there is a drive, led by governments, to set aside the cost factors and focus on the pure achievement of landing humans on Mars, it is unlikely that there will be a global effort to send people to another planet.
However, as humans, we are destined to one day leave our planet behind. Some may argue that our future as a species depends on colonizing another planet. We are explorers, and the future of exploration lies beyond Earth's atmosphere. We will one day leave Earth and spread throughout the Solar System, and beyond. But in terms of any current talk about humans on Mars, it is likely to remain just that - talk.
To further discuss the future of space exploration, please feel free to contact me: https://pbhuter.com
Paul B. Huter replied:
A lot of the technology that can be used to colonize Mars or the Moon can also be used on Earth to live subterranean. We cannot expect to live on the surface of the Moon or Mars without having to worry about the radiation from the Sun. Therefore, a number of engineers are looking at ways to turn Lunar and Martian caves into dwelling places for humans - either as explorers or permanent colonists. There are programs in place to develop sub-Lunar and sub-Martian settlements, which would be useful here on Earth in the event that the surface was no longer habitable.
Paul B. Huter replied:
Well, SpaceX definitely has the advantage of a serious head start. However, it really depends on what you mean by "private space race." If you are talking about commercial space tourism, one could make the argument that Blue Origin has focused pretty much exclusively on that target, while SpaceX has focused on building and launching advanced rocket technology. Now, if SpaceX is successful with its crewed capsule that is in the works for NASA, they will have demonstrated that they can launch people, which will lead to space tourism sponsored by Elon Musk. However, remember that Boeing is doing the same thing for NASA. True, Blue Origin really has not done anything but launch (and land) rockets, but I would not be surprised if Bezos got a commercial space tourism contract before Musk.
Paul B. Huter replied:
Great question! I actually did some work at NASA-JPL to see how Martian (Mars) missions could leverage off of Lunar (moon) missions because there are some synergies between the two. However, the differences between the moon and Mars are such that they are not exactly the same when it comes to colonizing and terraforming. First, let us take a look at the differences for terraforming:
Terraforming generally involves the process of converting a planet (or other body) to be more like Earth, in an attempt to make it more habitible for life originating on Earth (not just humans, since humans need other plants and animals to survive). For a place like Mars, the terrraforming process would involve raising the surface temperature to a more balmy climate. There are several ways to do this, none of which really need to be discusses or debated for the purposes of this article. Now, here is a really cool thing: Mars' atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide. Now, it is at a really low pressure, but if you raise that pressure and maintain the concentration of carbon dioxide, the planet will begin to warm and you can start doing things with plants. Plants consume carbon dioxide and put off oxygen. This is basically the process that happened on Earth eons ago, with the plants converting the mostly CO2 atmosphere to something more akin to what we have today. So, if you raise the pressure of the CO2 atmosphere on Mars, it will raise the temperature (think "global warming"), and subsequently allow for the use of plants to create an oxygen-rich atmosphere for other life. Basically, you end up with a pretty simple terraforming plan.
Compare this to the moon, though. The moon has no atmosphere, carbon dioxide or otherwise. So, if you wanted to terraform the moon, you would need to build an atmosphere. This is not an easy process at all, pretty much impossible.
It will be much easier to terraform Mars, making it into a place where life from Earth can take up refuge and continue on.
Now, colonization. The moon, in this case, will be far easier to colonize. It is quite a bit closer than Mars, which has a number of positive factors for colonization. The closeness to Earth means that you can colonize the moon pretty quickly, without having to deal with long travel and signal delays. And, once the colony is up and running, there is only about second of latency for communication with Earth. Compare this to almost 45-seconds of latency at times for Mars. Just being closer means that communication between the Earth and its moon will be much simpler for a colony.
So, in some ways, the answer to your question is "yes." It would be simpler and cheaper and more feasible to colonize the moon. But, if you are looking for a more permanant solution, then terraforming Mars, which will work a lot better, is the way to go.
Paul B. Huter replied:
If the government gave both companies the "GO" tomorrow (Monday, 14 May 2018), SpaceX would be first because they would probably have a launch pulled off by Monday, 21 May 2018. SpaceX has the rocket (Falcon 9) and the Dragon capsule. Blue Origin has a suborbital rocket (New Shepard) and a capsule, but they are still a little behind on the infrastructure to just launch.
Now, practically speaking, the government is not give a "GO" tomorrow. There is still a lot of regulation. And, there is a third player: Virgin Galactic, a company that has already launched people, albeit not tourists, to the edge of space on suborbital flights.
Space tourism is coming, and my prediction is this: by the end of 2018, someone will have paid a private company in the United States for a ride into space, likely suborbital. Whether that ride is with SpaceX (which would probably be orbital), Blue Origin, or Virgin Galactic, I cannot say. From a purely technological "rocket science" standpoint, Blue Origin could pull off a suborbital flight first because they could probably get government approval for that before SpaceX could get approval for an orbital flight, based on maturity of the respective technology. Virgin Galactic practically has approval, but they have had some setbacks recently.
Could the mining of mineral resources from asteroids ever become a reality?
... and if so, how could one get those resources safely back to earth?
Paul B. Huter replied:
I am a big believer in humen ingenuity and the ability of mankind to continue to explore and "reach for the stars." Those small points of light that have hovered above our heads since the dawn of time have had a special fascination for all of us, and the desire to touch those stars has led to advances in technology in the last century (or so) unlike any technological, scientific, or engineering breakthrough prior.
I also believe in the drive for people to make money. If someone thinks that there is money to be made, they will invest money into a venture. Until recently, there was not a lot of money to be made in space exploration and space travel. However, with advances in "rocket science" and the reduced cost of doing business in getting things to space (although, yes, it is still quite expensive), building a spacecraft and launching a rocket has become something that even small companies are able to do.
And some have said that asteroid mining is the first trillion-dollar industry. What more impetous does one need to make it work than that? If you are the first company to land on an asteroid and bring back gold or nickel or diamonds, you will not only be a huge success from an engineering and technological standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint. And isn't that the aim of any busines - to be the first to market and make a bunch of money?
Now, your question is whether it will become a reality. In short, yes. Will it be a reality in the next couple of years, though? That is a different question. As I stated, the technology exists. There are rockets that can launch a spacecraft (which exist, obviously) to asteroids. NASA and ESA have both done this successfully. Landing on an asteroid is no big deal, as this has been done. (Okay, it is a big deal to land remotely on something the size of a football field while both your spacecraft and the object are hurtling around the sun at tens of thousands of miles and hour, but it is not beyond the technological and engineer capability that the companies seeking to do it have.)
Exploration of Mars and the moon by rovers and landers has proven that we can pick stuff up from celestial bodies. The safe return of the Apollo astronauts in the 1960s and 1970s proves we can get home to Earth from those same celestial bodies, and, although the Apollo missions had people onboard to get home, advances in computing technology for space mean that navigating through the solar system to get a bucket of minerals from an asteroid to Earth remotely is not the challenge it was 50 years ago.
Returning from Earth orbit at 25,000+ miles-per-hour will prove challenging, but it is by no means undoable. NASA has demonstrated with the Orion capsule in the last couple of years that heat shield technology will protect a cargo travelling that fast (the approximate speed that an object returning to Earth from an asteroid will be travelling when it hits the atmosphere).
All of the pieces are there, both from an engineering and technological standpoint and from a financial standpoint (the financial drive and backing of investors). Putting those pieces together successfully may be a different story. The companies that are trying to pull this off may have the financial backing and support of entire nations (Luxembourg, to name one), but finding the engineering talent to find the unique solutions that are required to pull these missions off is a different challenge. In my opinion, a lot of these companies are trying very hard to be successful, but the "corporate atmosphere" is not conducive to what a lot of young and innovative engineers are looking for in today's age.
Because it is the highest form of "rocket science" so far, getting to an asteroid, mining it, and returning the resources to Earth will be the biggest engineering challenge that mankind has ever met. It will be done by 2025, if not sooner (if enough money gets thrown at the problem to hire and keep the engineers needed to do it), if not a little sooner. Regardless of when it gets accomplished, it will make someone(s) very wealththy, and completely change the dynamic of mining for humankind, as well as the future of human exploration of the stars.
For more information, please request a call - I have lowered my rates - and I would love the opportunity to discuss this, and anything else, with you.
Paul B. Huter replied:
In my opinion, how could anyone turn down the opportunity? Is it a scary thought? Yes. But it was also a scary thought to move out of Africa 100,000 years ago and spread across the world. Going to Mars is the next logical step in human exploration, and if I could be a part of that, I would welcome the opportunity.
Paul B. Huter replied:
First, the technical/engineering aspect. Musk has proven again and again that SpaceX has the technical and engineering capability to pull of spaceflight. Couple that with the fact that the United States has been sending probes to Mars for over fifty years, and it is pretty obvious that from a technical/engineering standpoint, Musk and SpaceX are able to pull it off.
Second, the financial aspect. SpaceX is 100% backed by Musk's billions. That means that if he wants to pay for it, he can. Of course, SpaceX has partners working with them that are helping to reduce costs. But really, Musk could likely write a check for the whole thing himself, which virtually eliminates any problems related to financing the venture.
Third, the legal aspect. This is the most challenging to overcome. SpaceX is a U.S.-based company, and subject to the laws and regulations of the United States, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration. Will the U.S. government sign off on a potentially hazsardous manned mission to Mars five years from now? There are a number of factors at play with that, and Musk cannot control them.
I believe that Elon Musk and SpaceX have the capability and the money to pull off a manned mission to build a colony on Mars by 2022. Therefore, the only question is whether he will be allowed to do it.
Paul B. Huter replied:
That is a great question, and one I have thought about a lot recently.
Obviously, one of the largest constraints on cheap access to space exploration is the cost of a launch. However, I think you are looking for something more than that.
What it really comes down to is this: the cost of satellites is too high. For example, a typical satellite launched today can cost upwards of $200 million. This puts satellite technology in the hands of organizations (be they government or private) that can afford that price tag. Yes, the return on that investment can be huge. But that return is only available to organizations with deep pockets. My company, PBHspace, is trying to change that with the development of the Q1 Spacecraft Bus.
But just why are satellites so expensive? Do they really need to cost $200+ million? I believe there are several contributors to that price tag, which I will outline and discuss for you (in no particular order):
First, most people who work on a satellite have very little perspective on the "big picture". They are a part of a Systems Engineering process, but they are only aware of their individual component. I wrote an article to this effect, published in Space Times, which was widely received. Now, if all the engineers who worked on a satellite had an understanding of how their components worked toward the entire system, efficiency would be increased, decreasing cost. Too often an engineer learns various engineering principles in school, and then forgets them because they are not applicable to their job, and when it comes time to work on a large project - such as a spacecraft - they have little or no understanding of how their work makes the whole project move forward. By training engineers to work as a part of the system, as opposed to the subsystem or component, a spacecraft engineering company will reap the benefits of improved efficency and lower costs, which should be passed on to the customer.
Second, the cost of engineers is too high. For example, in the first eight years of my career, my salary nearly doubled, but my capabilities as an engineer had not really doubled, only the number of years mattered. Now, I want to make money as an engineer, and I am not looking for a pay cut, but is it necessary to pay an engineer with 10 to 15 years of experience $150k+ when you could pay a fresh out of school engineer a third of that to do (about) the same job? Again, I wrote an article about innovation in the workplace, and whether it is necessary to pay for years of experience when a younger employee could do as well (or better, depending on the industry). There have been times in my career when I have looked back and said "I could have done this job at the beginning of my career, and it would have cost the company a lot less!" So, if a spacecraft engineering firm places less emphasis on years of experience, and more emphasis on the actual (innovative) capabilities of its engineers, there is a potential cost savings that would come with paying less for younger engineers who bring a lot more to the table than most firms give them credit for. Of course, experience should not be totally discounted, but engineering teams should be built with fewer experienced engineers and a larger proportion of less experienced engineers to reduce cost and, possibly, allow for more innovation. And those innovations wil benefit the engineering design, and the cost savings wil be passed on to the customer.
Third, there is a perception that satellites are expensive. Yes, they are highly complex feats of engineering that fly into a harsh environment and survive with a mission for years on end. But if you tell someone it is going to cost $200 million for their satellite, they will accept that. So the firm makes it cost $200 million for the satellite. But, and this is what PBHspace is aiming for, what if the same mission could be accomplished for $10 million? Would customers balk at that low price? Or would there be more customers?
Designing a spacecraft takes a lot. As I said, they are complex engineering marvels. But the methods of design have not really changed in the nearly 60 years that man has been orbiting artificial satellites. Things have gotten a lot more complex, yes, but the same engineering principles have held firm. And that is what needs to change. By ensuring that all members of the engineering team recognize not only the importance of their subsystem or component, but also the overall "big picture" of the engineering project, it will be possible to improve engineering efficiency and lower costs. By not relying so heavily on years of experience, and paying younger engineers with the same capabilities a lower salary, the engineering cost of the spacecraft will be reduced. And when costs are reduced, it no longer is necessary to say to the customer that the satellite will cost $200 million, and the overall perception that satellites need to cost so much can be eliminated.
Now, my discussion focussed on my perception of satellites, but the same applies to other spacecraft. There are several companies around the United States that are looking to develop spacecraft for space tourism or to supply the ISS with cargo and astronauts. There are, of course, differences between a communications satellite and a manned spacecraft, but the ideas outlined in this response still apply to some extent.
I hope I have been able to shed some light on how I perceive the costs of space exploration technology can be reduced. If you have any further questions, feel free to ask. And thank you, again, for your question.
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