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Reflections on Space Policy in Washington

About the only thing that went wrong on my Washington DC trip (noted earlier here) was having to fight a persistent head cold and trying to avoid shaking hands with our eminent panelists so as not to contaminate them (I want these guys healthy, and working!). But the fates smiled Wednesday morning when I moderated “The Future of the Vision for Space Exploration,” my voice back from what had been near-laryngitis the evening before, and we had a fascinating discussion in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill talking about where space exploration is going and what policy decisions loom large at the moment.

Louis Friedman, executive director of The Planetary Society, presented a look at current projects to explore the Solar System, many of which are somewhat off our radar, including Indian lunar missions like Chandrayaan-1 and the Chinese lunar orbiter Chang’e I (images expected by the end of this month). Japan’s space activities beyond the ongoing Hayabusa asteroid return mission also drew attention recently with the Kaguya spacecraft, orbiting Luna since mid-October. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is sending back high-definition videos that should, as Friedman noted, be in their own way as spectacular as the first Apollo 8 images we saw of a newly risen Earth.

What Steven Squyres wouldn’t do with high-definition equipment on his Mars rovers! Squyres, principal investigator for the science payload on the Mars Exploration Rover Project, showed the kind of unforgettable imagery we’ve almost come to take for granted of the Red Planet’s battered surface. At least, we start to take it for granted until we stop and think the matter through. I can remember, as a graduate student, pacing the floor waiting for that first TV image from Viking to come through (the one where they thought they were looking at a blue sky, but subsequently had to re-program to derive the now familiar salmon-colored atmosphere). So I found myself, as others in the room doubtless did, becoming energized about Mars through Squyres’ images all over again.

I think Steven Squyres is a man who has found the exact niche he wanted in life. He is so enthusiastic about what he does, even irrepressible, that when he speaks of addressing an audience of 20,000 students in Detroit (at Ford Field, where the Lions play), you realize how much good he is doing not just as planetary scientist but educator extraordinaire. And he told me that having that constant stream of new Mars imagery coming in each and every day is just what he and other mission planners had in mind. No sequestering of data that would only reach the public in dribbles much later. Instead, a communications-age feast of imagery that gets the attention of even the least space-minded.

Edward Belbruno is going to be doing an interview with me that I’ll publish on Centauri Dreams in installments (we’ll schedule that soon), but for now I’ll note how interesting is the synergy between what Dr. Belbruno does with ‘chaotic’ orbits (applying chaos theory to spacecraft trajectories) and our plans for moving further into the Solar System. This is the man who got the Japanese Hiten spacecraft to the Moon after the failure of the Hagoromo mission, with which all communications had been lost. Hiten was never intended to go to the Moon but was designed solely as a communications relay for Hagoromo. With scant fuel, only a Belbruno-style low fuel route would turn Hiten into a lunar voyager.

The subsequent success brought Belbruno’s work front and center for future mission concepts. You may recall that ESA’s lunar mission SMART-1 used similar orbital strategies. And one thing Belbruno brought up in the panel discussion was that as we move deeper into space, low-energy orbits could play a role in providing the needed supplies. You wouldn’t want to put a human crew on a vehicle that took years to reach a destination like the Moon, but if you’re talking about sending supplies to stock an initial base — or re-supply to a manned outpost on the Moon or Mars — such orbits make immediate sense. What Belbruno described sounded to me like a self-sustaining space-based infrastructure, rather than a series of one-shot missions that would never be repeated.

More on all this when I interview Dr. Belbruno for these pages, and I also have a similar interview lined up with Gregory Matloff, whose talk on solar sail technologies ran through the basics and touched on more exotic uses, such as solar sail methods to assist in asteroid deflection. I thought Dr. Matloff had the best line of the session when he opined in our panel discussion that anyone voting not to fund Arecibo’s planetary radar should be arraigned before the World Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. That’s how strongly some of us feel about losing Arecibo’s watchdog capabilities to help us find potentially dangerous asteroids, and it was good to hear this being said on Capitol Hill.

For many people (though probably not regular Centauri Dreams readers), solar sails are purely theoretical constructs, so I was glad to hear Matloff explaining the history of the concept, dating back to 1974, when the Mariner 10’s mission to Mercury used the radiation pressure from solar photons for attitude control. That ad hoc demonstration said all that needed to be said about the utility of the momentum imparted by photons, and later missions, like the Russian Znamya reflectors or the 1996 thin film antenna unfurled from the Space Shuttle, kept the concept in play (the Znamya missions, to be sure, had their share of problems).

Louis Friedman, of course, had put huge amounts of time and effort into COSMOS-1, which would have been the first sail to go fully operational in space, but that 2005 launch failure was but a temporary setback. The Japanese had already demonstrated sail deployment in 2004 from a suborbital rocket — we’re learning how to do these things. Thinking back, too, to Dr. Friedman’s talk and the array of international missions now in the works, it’s striking that countries less concerned about democratic participation, like China, have in some ways an easier time at articulating a long-term space goal. Democracy is sprawling, messy, and it assumes the public’s support is a major factor in building space policy. Governments without elections to contend with set their own agendas.

Ponder the solar sail itself as seen through the prism of NASA. Work at Marshall Space Flight Center has progressed to the point that the solar sail is close to or at the status of operational viability. In other words, it wouldn’t take much to launch and deploy an actual sail mission in terms of technology. But without the needed funding, such missions don’t happen, which is why space policy can be so difficult to sort out, and so frustrating. That’s one price you pay for democracy, and while I certainly would never want to live under any other form of government, it does account for the fact that our ventures into space sometimes seem to proceed by fits and stars rather than in a stable continuum.

More on all these matters later, but for now, thanks to those who put this session together, especially Lee Billings and Sarah Glasser at Seed Media Group, and thanks, too, to a panel that gathered on relatively short notice and made it all happen. Lee tells me we may have video available of part or all of these sessions, so I’ll plan to link to that whenever possible. I’m struck (once again) by the enthusiasm and vitality space professionals bring to the job at hand. Despite its sometimes daunting setbacks, our venture into space seems unstoppable to me if we can move beyond our focus on the immediate and place it in the context of a gradual, inevitable migration that will help to preserve our planet while opening up vistas that one day will make the Moon and Mars seem tame.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dad2059 November 15, 2007, 15:00

    It’s good to see people like Matloff get an audience inside the D.C. “Cone of Silence”. And the comment about Arecibo is right-on. Hopefully you guys get the opportunity to bend the ear of some money people.

    As for Chinese space policy and America still being a democracy, well, this is a science blog, not a political one so I won’t comment on that.

    But I will say that an ambitious space program is better than none. Maybe then we’ll get that “…gradual, inevitable migration that will help to preserve our planet while opening up vistas that one day will make the Moon and Mars seem tame.”

    Glad you’re getting better also. We need you working too!

  • Administrator November 15, 2007, 16:59

    dad2059, thanks for your kind thoughts. And here’s to that ambitious space program you talk about — may we push its limits in many directions that are now flagging.

  • Lubo November 15, 2007, 17:27

    The answer is private sector. Without it, spacetravel will continue to be a dream. Sad, but true :(
    We have nothing left, but to hope that X Prize will do something to change this miserable space condition, in which we are now.

  • Enzo November 15, 2007, 20:45

    Lubo, the private sector might be more efficient, but it is also profit driven. Can you tell me what (monetary) return would you have from a mission to Titan, Europa, Pluto or even, at least for a long while, to Mars ?
    It would only be a program only aimed at orbital and suborbital tourism and, maybe some geological exploration of the moon and near Earth asteroid for minerals.
    I cannot imagine anything else. No space telescopes, no planetary exploration no science whatsoever ecept fo rthe one that would give you a return in a year max time frame.


  • Lubo November 16, 2007, 18:00

    Enzo, pretty soon, some resources will be exhausted thanks to China and it’s neighbours. After that, the condition will force us to search for minerals and other stuff in space, and eventually, space colonization will take place. It’s inevitable :)

  • Enzo November 16, 2007, 21:05

    Lubo, I do not dispute that, just that a commercial space program will be almost completely science free with the exception of geology of close bodies like the moon and near earth asteroids. No other exploration will take place and space flight will be strictly limited to these close target and, maybe, to a bit of tourism.


  • andy November 17, 2007, 7:52

    I fear that reliance on minerals etc. from space will only serve to exacerbate the rich/poor divide to an unprecedented degree.

    Space minerals are going to be expensive in terms of hauling equipment/resources up and down a gravity well, etc. Running Earth civilisation off materials from space is not going to work. To me, it seems that physics conspires to make sure that space is not the answer to resource problems on Earth.

  • Lubo November 17, 2007, 11:21

    You are right, andy, resources hauling from other space bodies will not only be expensive, but impossible with current rockets. Without VASIMR and other similar technology, asteroids mining will continue to be sci-fi from Star Wars/Star Trek universe.

    One more thing, andy – not everything synthetic is with high quality and cheap, that’s why humans will go in space to make money there and this is going to happen, the question is WHEN.
    Another cause for us to expand in space is the growing human population. After the year 2025, in every next 11 years the world’s population will grow with 1 billion. If we not colonize the planets, wars will destroy the us in one way or another.

  • Michael Thomas November 24, 2007, 18:30

    I am curious how man is going to do these fictional great things ?

    Well, here is a paper that offers a new possibility for thought.


    I can already see the commentors who represent the conservative establishment in power…. protecting their rice bowls,,,, but what about
    new ideas that challenge the old ways…….. is their room ?

    I am suspect, there is NOT, but we’ll see.

  • Adam November 24, 2007, 23:58


    Electron beams aren’t going to be terribly effective once the charge on the vehicle is high enough. Filling your fuel tank full of positive ions is just asking for pain. Pulling in electrons from the local medium will just create drag.

    Also your thrust/energy estimates are hopelessly wrong. Accelerating mass to near lightspeed is all very well, but the energy efficiency of doing so for anything but relativistic final speeds is appallingly low. And for the reactor power quoted your thrust is very low. As any rocket textbook will tell you…

    Thrust = 2*Jetpower/exhaust velocity

    …though slightly modified for Einstein it means the same thing. Assuming you get 20 MW jetpower the thrust for Ve=c is…

    4×10^7/3×10^8 = 0.1333 Newtons

    …thus an acceleration of just 1.333×10^-7 m/s^2, not 9.8 m/s^2 as you’d advertised. Your power is too low by a factor of 73,500,000.

    I can’t fault your derivation of the constant acceleration equations for a relativistic rocket, but they’ve been around since the 1940s at least. Your electron-gun design is nothing new, but you’ve no mass allowance for heat-sinks and cooling systems that the gun and the reactor will need. The reactor alone will need to dissipate about 100 MW of heat, which will be a tad uncomfortable to anyone onboard.

    So what makes your idea a breakthrough?

  • ljk July 19, 2009, 2:25

    July 17, 2009

    Chandrayaan-1 Rescued from Failure

    Written by Nancy Atkinson

    The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, India’s moon orbiting satellite was almost lost earlier this year, Indian Space Research Organization revealed, as the star tracking system overheated and malfunctioned. The system helps determine and maintain the spacecraft’s orientation.

    Engineers were able to patch in the gyroscopes and another instrument to help maneuver the spacecraft, but they are not sure how long this jury-rigged system will work. At this point, determining the spacecraft’s future might be difficult, and differing statements from various officials reflect that.

    “We are not sure how long we will be able to sustain it. The life of Chandrayaan-I designed for two years may be reduced,” said ISRO spokesman S. Satish.

    ISRO chief Madhavan Nair said the star tracking system cannot be recovered, but he dismissed suggestions that the sensor’s failure might reduce the life span of the spacecraft.

    “The life (of the spacecraft) is not dependent on this instrument. This instrument is used only for orientation of the spacecraft,” he said. “The sensor cannot be recovered at this stage and we hope that the remaining part of this mission will be completed.”

    Full article here: