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The Next Steps in Space

Most of my research for Centauri Dreams involves looking at papers and presentations on matters involving deep space, whether propulsion systems, closed loop life support, or even possible destinations. That’s why it’s a huge help to get an article like the one below, giving us an overview of current thinking and an analysis of what is either in the pipeline or under consideration for the near-term. How do we get from here to the kind of Solar System infrastructure we’ll need to go interstellar? Ioannis Kokkinidis has an impressive background: He holds a Master of Science in Agricultural Engineering from the Department of Natural Resources Management and Agricultural Engineering of the Agricultural University of Athens. He went on to obtain a Mastère Spécialisé Systèmes d’informations localisées pour l’aménagement des territoires (SILAT) from AgroParisTech and AgroMontpellier and a PhD in Geospatial and Environmental Analysis from Virginia Tech. Today Ioannis surveys the lay of the land, from near-future manned missions to robotic forays to Jupiter, Saturn, the ice giants and beyond.

by Ioannis Kokkinidis


This post was inspired from a reader’s comment that came in my review of Andy Weir’s Artemis at this website: most people are not aware of what are the planned future plans for space exploration beyond the highly publicized plans of SpaceX. I noted then that I might write in the future about the future of space exploration as it is outlined in the current plans, rather than just the dreams of visionaries. Furthermore 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and people are probably wondering what is supposed to come next. In this post I review what the current plans to explore space from earth orbit to interstellar space look like currently, both for robotic and human spaceflight. My standard caveat that these are the views of a learned amateur, not a professional in the sector, applies as always.

Earth orbit

Since this is a blog on interstellar travel, I will keep my analysis on earth orbit short. Suffice to say that for robotic exploration even a simple listing of all the future satellites that are planned to be put up by various public and private agencies can fill volumes of books. For human spaceflight it is certain that this particular destination will not be abandoned. The International Space Station is currently authorized until 2024 and there has been legislative action to extend it all the way to 2030. This is something to consider when evaluating the feasibility of the Planetary Society’s Mars in the 2030s plan, which expects that ISS money will go to Mars Exploration after the station is abandoned in 2024 or 2028 at the latest. Even if ISS is abandoned in 2030, NASA will not abandon the destination. There are currently very preliminary plans about a successor space station that will not be owned by NASA, but by a private contractor with NASA leasing space for use by its astronauts. This is a similar model to what ESA uses, which plans in the future to keep sending its astronauts to earth orbit stations it will not own. Russia still has several modules to add to its segment of the International Space Station, starting with Nauka MLM-U. When the time comes to abandon the current ISS, Russia will detach its new modules and turn them into an autonomous space station. China also intends to keep sending its own space stations to low earth orbit, and ESA has signed a cooperating agreement to send its own astronauts there. India has its own plans to achieve orbit autonomously.

Maintaining a station in earth orbit makes sense from a deep space perspective: you would want to first test how your astronauts will react to space in the cloistered environment near earth before sending them off to farther destinations where they will face increased risks. There are plans to put up private space stations as hotels and, if the ISS proved anything, is that there are several people willing to pay an 8 digit price tag to experience space. Whether these plans actually come to fruition remains to be seen. My understanding is that private trips to the ISS ended with the retirement of the Space Shuttle and its logistics capacity, even though all private travelers came by Soyuz. The problem with private space stations is that the current market will not support a privately owned station. The ISS receives some $100 million in private income per year; there is a figure on the web that private space research is about $500 million per year which sounds a lot until you consider that for Fiscal Year 2018 US Congress appropriated over $4 billion for ISS operations and related activities such as commercial cargo and crew. To that we would need to add spending by the other ISS partners. Future space stations would need to function more cheaply and attract more funding just to cover operation costs, let alone assembly costs.

The Moon

The moon is the most accessible destination beyond earth, 600 times closer than Mars. China has given an emphasis on the moon with its Chang’e program, which can lead to human landings. Russia intends to return to the moon with the Luna-Glob program, which will be missions Luna 25 through 31. South Korea intends to send a rover to the moon, with US participation. India has sent an orbiter, Chandrayaan-1, which had US participation, and which it intends to follow up. SpaceIL of Israel is about to send the first private mission to the Moon, funded by philanthropy rather than government appropriations. The US intends to send robots to the lunar surface and has solicited the private sector for lunar landing architectures. The program is called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program and has awarded 10 contracts, initially for a user manual to the landing architecture, that can reach up to $6.2 billion in awards. Many of those participating have come out of the defunct Google Lunar X Prize. Those plans though are dwarfed in excitement by the plans for a return of people to the moon.


Image: Plan of the Lunar Orbital Gateway. Credit: From the December 7 2018 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council Human Exploration committee.

The next great frontier of human space exploration is currently planned to be Earth’s Moon. Of course this can sound a bit oxymoronic: didn’t we first orbit the Moon 50 years ago with Apollo 8, and go on to orbit it another 8 times? That is very true, but we have not been there since Apollo 17 in 1972. The Soviet Union abandoned its moonshot after the fourth N-1 rocket exploded in 1974, and by then NASA had focused on the earth because of the backlash to Apollo. A plan for a partially crewed station in lunar orbit emerged at the start of this decade, proposed by the contractors of the International Space Station when their work assembling it had finished. During the Obama presidency it was sold as proving ground for the Journey to Mars: a prototype of the Mars transfer habitat loosely connected to the earth but not very far away. Currently the Moon itself is the final destination: rather than have the Altair lander that would be carried with Orion per the Constellation program plan, another lander is to be used that will go from the currently dubbed Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway (LOP-G) to the lunar surface and back. The Gateway will be in a Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit and will be crewed only part of the time, just as Skylab and the early Salyut stations were. The first section will be the Power and Propulsion Element which will be an adaptation of current spacecraft buses for geostationary satellites; it is expected to proceed from the conceptual to the development stage in 2019 and launch in 2022. While it will be launched by a commercial rocket to earth orbit and proceed using its own high power electric propulsion engines to the Moon, that will not be the case for the other modules. Starting from Exploration Mission 3 each Orion launch to the Moon will carry with it a module that will be dropped off at the station until it is assembled.

Image: Overview of the Gateway plan. Credit: From the December 7 2018 presentation of Jason Crusan to the NASA Advisory Council.

The Gateway has many critics. For starters many people are opposed to it because it will use the Space Launch System and the Orion Spacecraft: “Any money not spent on SpaceX is a waste, SLS is a waste, Orion is a waste, government is waste, private sector forever”. It is true that the origins of the Space Launch System is the Senate; the Obama administration wished to abolish all of the George W Bush era Constellation program and let the private sector do everything. The Senate stopped this continued the Orion spacecraft as a deep space vehicle and created the SLS as a continuation of the Ares V rocket. Congress did not allow Nixon to abolish NASA because it had become a jobs program; this was also the case for the end of Constellation. The Congressional delegation of Alabama is not about to send thousands of jobs and millions in funding from Huntsville to California, nor are the delegations of any other of the 41 states that have SLS contractors. At least Jeff Bezos has been wise enough to put his rocket factories in established rocket manufacturing areas, Elon Musk did not. If anything, the cancellation of Space Shuttle proved that Congress will not automatically re appropriate money saved to other NASA programs: NASA was not given saved shuttle funding and it was used instead to pay other government priorities. NASA funding rose again only after The Martian film came out and Congress got more interested in human space exploration.

Another set of critics point out that it would be more advantageous to launch bigger pieces of the Gateway on their own dedicated SLS launches rather than try to fit them behind the Orion. This is a very valid point; Mir was sent up separately from the cosmonauts that assembled it. Yet another criticism is that Lunar Orbit is a destination where we should put a station after we have a station on the surface of the moon, and that it will be nothing but a toll station, an unnecessary stop on the way to the Moon’s surface. Better yet, let’s put up an orbital station after we have proven In Situ Resource Utilization, if at all. Having a station in lunar orbit and a spaceship that can go there is far more technologically mature than having a surface station. We have had stations in Earth orbit since Salyut 1 in 1971. By now we know what it takes to run one, though how it will function and how astronauts will function semi-detached from the earth is an unknown. Beyond the short surface forays with the Lunar Modules during Apollo, we do not have any experience operating on the surface of another body. On top of that, the lunar surface is a rather harsh place, with 14 (earth) day days and nights with wild temperature swings and an ever present and harsh dust. Also having a space station in lunar orbit is creating infrastructure that helps make lunar exploration more sustainable, as was emphasized to the NASA Advisory Council. Furthermore it is much easier to resupply from Earth a lunar orbital station than a surface station that would require soft landing of the goods sent. What is certain in any case is that the orbital station at the moon has matured enough as a plan that there is a real notional assembly plan expected to be done by 2026. Surface base plans are far more notional, mostly pursued by space advocates.


The most developed idea to colonize the Lunar Surface is ESA director Johann-Dietrich Wörner’s Lunar Village. The idea is that all the world nations will come together and build a joint settlement on the moon where one building will be from ESA, another from NASA, another from Roscosmos and so on. Wörner has used his authority at ESA and earlier at DLR (German Aerospace Research Center) to fund a few conceptual architectural studies on how a building from regolith would look. There has not been though real development on a plan with milestones and dates to build the village, unlike the LOP-G plan. While NASA has put up tenders for the Gateway with technical descriptions for the modules and there is a preliminary agreement on what the modules should be, there is no such planning for the lunar surface. Russia has proposed a lander from the Gateway to the surface, and so has Lockheed Martin, using a version of its Mars Lander proposal from the Journey to Mars but without a heat shield.

China intends to directly land on the moon at the end of the Chang’e program, possibly in the 2030s. It was announced in the press conference for the first lunar night of Chang’e 4 that Chang’e 8 “will test key technologies to lay the groundwork for the construction of a science and research base on the Moon”. What this means practically is unknown, Chang’e 4 also tested a key technology to construct a base by having an experiment to grow plants and insects on the moon. Apollo plans for longer lunar stays were for a modified version of the Lunar Module without an ascent stage to be used as a habitat for a lunar day while the astronauts would use the Lunar Module on which they arrive only for descent and ascent to the surface. Later the Apollo Application Program envisioned a soft horizontal landing of the upper stage of the Saturn V with the Oxygen tank converted into a long term habitat, per the wet workshop concept.

Post Apollo plans for the most part envision a core module, similar to a space station module, landed on the lunar surface and then covered with regolith for radiation protection using a bulldozer, before longer term construction begins. Specific Chinese base plans have not been announced. The characteristics of the Chinese space program are that it is highly focused but maintains a glacial pace. When the Chinese sent the first person to space in 2003 the Greek magazine Ptisi kai Diastima (Flight and Space) had a comprehensive review of what was known and what had been announced about the Chinese manned space program showing that the effort to send a person in space had begun around 1980. If the Chinese have indeed decided to send a person to the Moon and build a base there, it will happen, eventually. However the decision making process in space, as in many other domains in the People’s Republic of China is quite opaque.

The American (and European) system is quite open, but less focused. The US has vacillated between a return to the Moon and forward to Mars as a destination for human spaceflight for decades, depending on the presidential administration. At least for robotic spaceflight, the US scientific community has created the Decadal Surveys process to create a consensus among the various scientific interests on what destinations and investigations are to be prioritized. China works with 5 year plans, but there is no publicly known long term roadmap in either human or robotic exploration. The Chang’e 4 press conference announcements, which also mentioned a Chinese Mars rover for 2020 have so far been the most public long term plan announced.

Venus and Mercury

Venus and Mercury are grouped together in this post because both will mostly remain the purview of robotic spacecraft. The Apollo Applications Program seriously considered a Manned Venus Flyby for 1974, but in the end the only part of AAP that came to fruition was the least risky one: Skylab. Several Mars plans have included a test at Venus, usually as a dress rehearsal to a Mars mission. Venus is closer and requires less energy to visit than Mars, so before sending a spacecraft on a 15 month mission to Mars, we can send it on a six month mission to and from Venus. Still, the surface of Venus is a sulfuric hellhole, very hard to visit by robot, and there are very few unique things that require human participation to do in orbit, especially considering that the planet does not have any satellites. Recently a Venus airship was proposed as part of NASA’s Advanced Innovative Concept program. Balloons have been dropped on Venus, most recently two French balloons that were part of the Soviet VEGA mission to Halley’s Comet, but this is to my knowledge the first proposal for a crewed dirigible. NASA AICs are at best decades from fruition and most are never implemented.

Venus has proven to be the greatest success of the Soviet space program. Russia has plans to send another probe in the future, Venera D, which will have US participation. Currently the Japanese probe Akatsuki is orbiting Venus. Earlier, ESA’s Venus Express was doing so, but the US has not sent a mission since Magellan in the early 1990s. There have been proposals both in the Discovery and New Frontiers programs but they were not selected. For this reason NASA’s planetary division is investigating a Venus Bridge mission, something that will cost around $200 million and can do more science than Magellan. Also a surface mission is being contemplated. The state of technology is such that a cooling shield at Venus can work for some 5 hours before it fails, and then we can try to have a hot mission as long as the robot lasts. There is some computer hardware out there able to withstand Venusian conditions such as a CPU, but not an entire computer, e.g. no high temperature RAM.

Mercury has the disadvantage of being in a location where the energy necessary to reach it is similar to that needed to reach Jupiter. So far we have had Mariner 10 do three flybys, MESSENGER orbit the planet and ESA’s BepiColombo is on its way there. The US National Academy of Science suggests that the next mission there ought to be a lander. Considering how sporadic missions to Mercury have been and that no Mercury lander has been proposed yet, it will take quite some time until such a mission starts.


The Red Planet has been the object of popular fascination throughout the telescope era. As David Portree has noted in his book Humans to Mars, over 100 mission architectures have been proposed for a human landing there since Von Braun’s Der Marsprojekt of 1948, but none has yet moved to building the necessary equipment. On the other hand, while Mars has very appropriately been described as the graveyard of space probes, it has also been the setting of spectacularly successful robotic missions. The next big step in robotic missions to Mars is Sample Return. So far the only time that a mission proposal for Sample Return reached the definite launch date phase, at least per Ulivi and Harland’s book series Robotic Exploration of the Solar System, has been the JPL 2003 proposal, which was cancelled after the twin failures of the 1999 missions revealed that “Faster, Cheaper, Better” also meant too much risk. However NASA has persisted and the current sample return architecture looks as such: First a rover will land and cache samples on the Martian surface. That rover is the Mars 2020 rover which is under construction at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Then another mission will land that will have a fetch rover which will pick up the samples and bring them back to the return launcher, which in turn will lift them to Mars orbit. There another spacecraft will collect them and return them to earth. So far these two missions have not been authorized, but there are plans. Now that we do know what the weight of the sample cache is, the older plans for a solid rocket liftoff rocket had to be revised: it would be too heavy. Thus a hybrid rocket architecture was selected, and currently there is active development to mature this technology so that it can be used. The notional timeline is that the fetch mission will be launched in 2024 and ESA has signed a preliminary agreement to provide the return spacecraft. However there is also a far more ambitious plan for 2024: Elon Musk intends to land his Starship on Mars.

The SpaceX Architecture

Image: Starship taking off from Mars. Credit: SpaceX.

If someone wanders the internet looking for articles on space, he is bound to run into the idea that the way to move forward in space exploration is to give all problems to SpaceX to solve, give all the money to SpaceX, everything is superior if it is made by SpaceX and that every other effort to solve any other issue in space is doomed at best, a waste of resources at worst, only SpaceX can solve everything. The triumphalism you find online about SpaceX gets quite annoying. My first reaction when I ran into this kind of articles and comments on internet boards was that these might be paid trolls. Closer scrutiny has shown that this is not the case, the posters are often true believers, and indeed inside SpaceX many truly believe that they are the salt of the Earth, or I should say the salt of space. My next reaction though would be, did they not do the Iliad in school in order to learn its lesson of hubris, ate, nemesis? Didn’t they do Herodotus in school, or the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides? Has classical education dropped so low in the West?

Then I ran into a Wired article entitled “Dr Elon & Mister Musk: Life inside Tesla’s production hell” [https://www.wired.com/story/elon-musk-tesla-life-inside-gigafactory/]. After he became a millionaire Elon Musk founded SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity with a utopian vision to change the world for the better. The foundational aspect of the companies is that the current methods in each industry are hopelessly outdated and that through disruptive innovation you can change the world for the better. Work hard enough (i.e. no 8 hour days; have a job, not a life) and the impossible becomes possible unless it violates the laws of physics. This is a general mentality prevalent in Silicon Valley: it is the place that believes that through hard work you can pursue the dream, and a place where hubris is actually welcome. Since Tesla achieved what was though impossible in the past, they think that they will keep on doing it regularly in the future. However the article is an inadvertent story of hubris, ate, nemesis: Tesla designs a great mass market electric car and decides to build it in a highly automated robotic factory to minimize the number of workers. Elon moves the production date six months forward from the original plan (hubris). When he runs into trouble setting up the production lines, and gets in a foul mood after his breakup with Amber Heard, he fires people on a whim when he runs into them if they are not able to answer his questions on the spot to his liking (ate). In the end he realizes that conventional car production companies are not the outdated behemoths he thinks: They have made a real effort to automate more and are already working at the edge of the possible. He manages to deliver his production goal, but 6 months after his original planned date and 12 months after the target date he set, $10,000 more expensive than the cost target and with his company a few weeks from bankruptcy (nemesis). The main thing going for the Tesla Model 3 is that it is a better electric car than the competition.

The relevant question here is, has he been chastened enough by the experience, or will he repeat the same hubris with his Mars plans? Incidentally, Elon’s treatment of his employees would never fly in Europe: if his firings are as arbitrary as described, his ex-employees have a right to sue and force him to hire them back at Tesla Motors. Also the idea of more than 8 hours work on a permanent basis and a general dislike of the idea of people taking vacation is reason enough for a European government to force an ultimatum: either respect the sacrosanctity of the 8 hour work and vacation for your employees or we will shut you down and fine you into personal bankruptcy. California simply does not have strong labor protections by European standards.

The SpaceX plan depends on the development of a monster rocket, larger in size and more complex than any other rocket produced in history, currently called the Super Heavy. The first stage will have 31 Raptor engines and launch the upper stage, currently called “Starship”, into earth orbit before returning for a landing and eventual reuse. The Starship, which will be able to transport 100 people to Mars and 100 tons of cargo, will be refueled in orbit by a tanker which will be a specialized version of the Starship that only carries fuel, and then launch to Mars. The trip is estimated to last between 80 and 150 days each way. On Mars SpaceX will help build an entire city. The timeline is pretty aggressive: In 2019 a Grasshopper like test vehicle for the Super Heavy will be completed; indeed Elon Musk has shared its images as it is being built from his Texas site. Then in 2020 the first full configuration Super Heavy will be launched to space. In 2022, as part of the #dearMoon project, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and 6 to 8 artists will be launched on a weeklong trip around the Moon. In 2024 the first expedition to Mars, composed of two Starships, will be sent to land there and begin the process of colonization.

SpaceX has a history of running late, missing its goals and being secretive with the status of its programs. While the development states and the mishaps of the Space Launch System are quite public, with regular reports for example appearing on the site of the NASA Advisory Council (https://www.nasa.gov/offices/nac/home/index.html), it is quite hard to track the development and the milestones of the Super Heavy. It took an extended effort by the contributors and forum members of NASASpaceflight.com to produce this article (https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2018/08/evolution-big-falcon-rocket/) with all the redesigns the mission has gone through based on the official presentations and the scraps that get dropped. Tracking the status of the Super Heavy has the feeling of Kremlinology. Elon Musk himself admitted during the first launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket that he almost cancelled that rocket three times, as he has already cancelled the Red Dragon mission to Mars.

Building the Super Heavy is an unprecedented endeavor. So far the only rocket that had so many rocket engines on its first stage was the Soviet N-1, which failed in all four attempts to launch. Now the first stage of the Falcon Heavy contains 27 engines, so SpaceX does have experience in properly starting that many rockets without destroying the vehicle. Raptor development, partially funded by the United States Air Force, seems to be proceeding normally, though again we do not really know. The Air Force funded the Raptor as an upgrade to the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, which is considered underpowered. Elon Musk, though, has stated that its first space flight will be in the Super Heavy, so it will not see earlier activity that would help work out its kinks. Some risk will be retired by having it power the Grasshopper like prototype, but having an unprecedented number of unproven engines is major risk factor. NASA’s contractors have run into unexpected problems making the gigantic tanks and stages of the SLS because no one had built them to that size before with modern methods. What problems will SpaceX run when making its even bigger tanks?

My main issue, though, is with the Starship. SpaceX’s experience with crewed spaceships is limited to the Crew Dragon. SpaceX has never built a space station module or something similar. The Crew Dragon is to carry 7 people and is not intended to provide life support for months on end. For that matter, the most people that have been in space at one time was 13, when STS-131 visited Expedition 23 on the ISS.

Image: STS-131 visiting Expedition 23. Credit: NASA.

No one has ever flown 100 people in space, and this on its own creates its own set of technological problems to solve. When Elon Musk unveiled what was then called the Interplanetary Transport System in the International Astronautics Council of 2016 in Guadalajara, per the reporters the most cringe worthy question was what he will do about sanitation. Elon brushed it off, but it is a very valid concern. The average American consumes a little under one ton of food per year. Now this is considered large and wasteful, so let’s assume that the average astronaut on the trip will consume 500 kg/per year. At 100 people and for three months that means 12.5 tons of food. I do not know how much human waste that will produce; as an agronomist, my know-how has been on animal waste, but even with a low residue diet similar to what the Apollo astronauts ate, it still means several tons. Current ISS technology is to boil the urine, recover some 75% of the water as vapor and throw away the brine containing the other 25%. Feces are dried and rejected overboard.

While this kind of technology will work on earth orbit, and is planned for the LOP-G, it can be quite problematic for a protected destination such as Mars. If you are to reject something overboard while on a Trans Mars Injection orbit, it will simply follow you on the way to Mars. Would we really want to drop a hygienic bomb weighing several tons on to Mars with the colonists’ untreated waste? On cruise ships on earth waste treatment is similar to what is used on land before the treated effluent gets rejected overboard. First there comes primary treatment, using mechanical methods such as gravity-based separation and filtering to remove any debris from the wastewater. Then comes secondary treatment, with the microbes on the waste allowed to grow and consume all the nutrients in the wastewater, turning into what is called activated sludge or biosolids, which are then removed. Then in tertiary treatment methods such as UV radiation and chlorination are used to reduce the bacterial load, up until the treated effluent is often of superior quality to tap water. Needless to say nothing of this sort has been tried in microgravity. On top of everything, what is currently recognized by the National Academy of Science as the hardest technical problem of the Mars trip, Entry Descent and Landing (EDL) on Mars, is just hand-waived.

It is generally recognized that the biggest hurdle that SpaceX will face is raising the money. The more modest NASA plan to Mars was estimated in 2017 to cost $221 billion by the NASA Office of Inspector General, and cost estimates at this stage of a project tend to be lower than the final cost. Estimates of the development cost of the Super Heavy, coming from outside SpaceX, are in the order of $5 to $10 billion. The cost of the NASA Space Launch System alone is $8.9 billion until the first launch, and SLS does not include the development of a new engine. The total cost of SLS, Orion and ground architecture, along with earlier Constellation costs for NASA, are at $26 billion until EM-1. SpaceX has a proven ability to develop and manufacture rockets at a cheaper price than traditional manufacturers, but if the Tesla Model 3 proved anything, it is that there are limits.

Let us be generous and assume that the whole Super Heavy, Starship and ground infrastructure all the way to the first mission to Mars will cost only $20 billion, which is generously low considering the technology development required. Where will this money come from? The space launch market is simply not large enough. SpaceX believes that since they will have the largest and most economical rocket in history, every commercial payload will gravitate towards them. The Saturn V was the most economical rocket in cost per weight launched, yet it never launched any payload outside the Apollo program. The Energia rocket was cheaper per kg than any other rocket at its time and was made available for commercial uses, but there were no takers. Granted, it did not have the payload adapters of Ariane 5, which is the first rocket designed from the start to launch multiple satellites in one launch. If you follow the news, Arianespace has trouble synchronizing the delivery and integration of two payloads. Very often delays on one payload mean that the other which is ready has to delay its launch to wait for it, or at best Ariane switches around payloads with a future mission if the delays get out of hand. SpaceX will somehow be able to get 10 large commercial payloads from different manufacturers and clients synchronized for a single launch. Ignoring for a moment political demands even for commercial operators to use national launchers. Satellite owners will wish to put all their eggs in one basket, considering that they do fear a launch monopoly.

The other potential use of the Falcon Heavy is in very fast long range travel. The USAF has been quite interested in having the ability to transport troops across the world in a ballistic missile since the 1960s and has had talks with SpaceX. If we are talking about commercial passengers, it is quite debatable how realistic this is. Per SpaceX’s own presentation the mission will be from some specialized terminal out at sea near city A to another specialized terminal out at sea near city B, with the sea commute taking some 45 minutes to and from cities A and B. Left unsaid is the bureaucratic hassle on entering countries unfriendly to foreign visitors: an international visitor entering the US through JFK airport on a busy afternoon might take two hours just to cross immigration even when said visitor has all the valid paperwork. Somehow a ballistic trip lasting less than an hour between London and New York looks less appealing if you need to spend 3 hours just to enter the US.

While SpaceX is a private company and does not publish its financials, leaked financial stated show a company that was profitable in years they did not have a launch mishap, and loss-making in years that they did. They have recently raised some $500 million from private equity which has allowed the construction of the model Super Heavy Grasshopper, but is also supposed to build the Starlink communication cubesat constellation. Two prototypes have already been launched to orbit, though none of them managed to reach their proper orbit after release. The leaked SpaceX plan expected that the profits from Starlink will be such that they will be financing Mars colonization. Be aware though that Starlink is not the only communication cubesat constellation planned; there already are other competitors with prototypes in space, and there is no shortage of satellite bandwidth in the current market. As an article noted, Elon will be competing not only with satellite manufacturers but also with established ground telecommunication companies such as Verizon. Elon will need to keep on doing six impossible things before breakfast for quite some time in order to succeed in his plans, though in his defense, he has achieved things once thought impossible.

NASA and other plans

In my opinion, the most mature Mars exploration plan ever proposed was the Soviet plan from 1989. RKK Energia proposed assembling a transfer vehicle based on Mir technology and sending it off to Mars using the Energia super heavy rocket. Considering that Mir derived modules form what is currently the Russian segment of the ISS and have proven reliable and that Energia flew twice in the 1980s, it was more realistic than many plans that wanted a new mega rocket on newly built modules. It should be noted, though, that the Soviet Union never had a fully successful Mars mission. Exomars, which is a joint ESA/Roscosmos mission is the closest thing to a fully successful mission the Soviet Union and its successor state Russia has had yet. NASA on the other hand has been sending successful robotic missions to Mars since 1965. This however has not translated to human missions yet. In the run up to the Moon landing Congress had a session in 1968 where NASA proposed that the next step after the Moon should be Mars. Congress turned down the offer. It was President George H W Bush that first put a Mars Landing as a national goal in his Space Exploration Initiative, along with the Space Station and a return to the Moon. Very little came out of SEI: While the Space Station was built, though with Russian participation for proliferation reasons, out of the Mars section all that came out was the Mars Program Office at NASA that has mostly coordinated robotic missions and the Design Reference Mission 1. As a reaction to DRM 1 came out Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, elements of which were eventually integrated in NASA planning. The next administration to pursue Mars as a target for human exploration was the George W Bush administration with its Vision for Space Exploration and its Constellation program, though only after the return to the Moon. Under Barack Obama the Journey to Mars was the main goal of the space program, though that administration never waged political capital to keep it well funded. The current Trump administration per Space Policy Directive 1 wants to go first to the Moon and pretty soon. SpaceX might simply win a Mars race by default.

The current Design Reference Mission to Mars is version 5, delivered in 2010 a little before the cancellation of the Constellation program. A Shuttle derived mega rocket, then the Ares V and currently the Space Launch System, will launch several times with the segments of a transfer habitat, which will be assembled in low earth orbit. A space tug powered by high power electric propulsion will send the habitat to Mars orbit, where it will rendezvous with a prepositioned ascent descent vehicle. Astronauts will land at the surface near the prepositioned rocket In Situ Resource Utilization fuel factory that will be creating methane fuel and oxygen from the Martian atmosphere and explore the region. The first mission will explore the surface for 30 days, but eventually the plan is for 200 day stay opposition missions. The ascent vehicle will refuel from the fuel factory and return the crew to the transfer habitat, which the tug will then send back to earth. The Orion deep space vehicle attached to the habitat will return the astronauts to the earth’s surface.

This particular architecture, while differing in details, has been the standard since the mid-1990s. Critiques have been that this plan does not create significant infrastructure and it will only lead to flags and footprint moments like Apollo with people not returning for decades. These plans suggest that first we should put up things like a fuel depot in an Earth-Sun Lagrange point or set up Aldrin cyclers between Earth and Mars to ensure routine transportation to Mars. Another critique is that this plan uses expendable architecture significantly and that we should be using only reusable rockets like the Falcon 9. Also Orion was not originally designed for Mars, so its heat shield is insufficient for several return orbits, and that instead the SpaceX Dragon should be used. Before Elon Musk made his big architecture announcement in Guadalajara there was a plan making the rounds in the literature, including papers by people working for NASA, that the preferred plan to Mars should be as such: Falcon Heavies and Falcon 9s should launch a transfer habitat similar to the Bigelow Expandable Aerospace Module with some specialized materials needed for the trip and Dragons, instead of SLS launching conventional habitats and an Orion. I never quite understood how the ascent/descent vehicle would get to Mars, most likely they would use a Crewed Dragon similar to the unmanned Red Dragon concept, but it would land near an ISRU rocket fuel factory, be refueled there and return to the inflated habitat. I also never understood how the astronauts would ascend from Mars, but landing on Earth would be by Dragon, whose heatshield can withstand Mars reentry. After Bigelow announced that they had an agreement with ULA to design an adaptor for their inflatable module on the Atlas V and its replacement the Vulcan, and the announcement of the Interplanetary Transfer System, which became the Big Falcon Rocket and the Super Heavy, the BEAM/Dragon plan has faded from public view. Lockheed Martin, though, has proposed a variation to DRM 5, the Mars Base Camp. Instead of astronauts just using an ascent/descent vehicle parked in Mars orbit, there will be a fully-fledged space station, a Mars Base Camp, that will facilitate surface landing and allow telepresence operations at the Mars surface with low latency robots.

The Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System are likely not the optimal solution to footsteps on Mars. They are, though, what Congress wants and what it is funding. Democracy is not a regime that produces the optimum solution but the consensual solution that most people can live with. As Plato noted, the best possible regime is an absolute kingdom ruled by a perfect monarch, and then in the next sentence he says that such a king does not exist in the real world. The Byzantine emperors proclaimed after adopting the Greek title basileus (king) in the 5th century that they were the perfect king of Plato’s description, but no one with an elementary knowledge of history would really proclaim that any of them was a perfect ruler. King Elon would likely be able to mobilize the national resources of the United States better than the current plan of Congress and create something superior, but by his choices to situate his company’s infrastructure and his policy not to subcontract but rather build parts in-house he has shown that he does not play well the political game.

The main selling point about the current NASA plan is that it mobilizes the army of contractors and their workers sufficiently to eventually produce the desired outcome. The Space Launch System uses mature Space Shuttle technology and can trace its lineage in Shuttle Derived Launch Vehicles all the way back to the 1980s. The Orion spacecraft may have been advertised as a modernization of the Apollo capsule, but I would say that its lineage is closer to the Space Station lifeboat, which was intended for cases when the Shuttle was grounded. In turn, the Space Shuttle is also a cautionary note showing how combining kit with a long heritage and high technological maturity can still lead to something with lengthy and expensive overruns when these are drawn into unprecedented combinations. The transfer vehicle will be, as mentioned earlier, an improved variation of the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, and considering that it uses highly efficient electric propulsion rather than chemical propulsion of the Spaceship it is in some respects more advanced. Getting the NASA plan accomplished, though, in the end requires a renewed focus on Mars, which is something currently not in vogue in either the White House or Congress. As for other national space programs, while there are paper plans similar to the DRM 5 architecture, I am not aware of concrete plans to actually bring them to fruition.


This section should perhaps be better entitled Small Bodies. Asteroids, whether Near Earth, in the Main Belt and more recently the Jupiter Trojans, have been a target of robotic exploration since Galileo encountered 951 Gaspa in 1991. Other small bodies, though, were visited earlier, with the International Haley Armada of 1986 and Phobos and Deimos visited in 1965 by Mariner 4. The various space agencies will keep on sending missions, with the Jupiter Trojans that are to be visited by the Lucy mission being the next new category to receive a mission. Human plans were active until the recent cancellation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. When the Obama administration cancelled the Constellation program, the next step in space chosen was to be a visit to a Near Earth Asteroid, which did not require a lander to be developed. After sky searches failed to find an object in a proper orbit to be visited by astronauts on an Orion before it ran out of supplies, the Asteroid Redirect Mission was devised. A robotic mission would go to a small asteroid, bag it, and carry it to a distant retrograde orbit around the Moon. Since no appropriate sized asteroids were found, it was modified so that a boulder would be carried from an asteroid to Moon orbit so that astronauts could visit it. This mission received a lot of derision from both the scientific community and space enthusiast circles. Other people pointed out that NASA does not even have an appropriate spacesuit for visiting the boulder. For now it seems that the first small bodies that people will visit will be Phobos and Deimos in an Apollo 8-like test for a human mission to Mars. Space planners would like to test first-long term survival of a transfer habitat, and visiting Phobos and Deimos does not entail the risk of Entry, Descent and Landing on Mars. A lander to Phobos or Deimos can be adapted from a lunar lander, though the landing will be more like a docking. Spaceships that visit Mars can be adapted to visit asteroid destinations, but so far no one has proposed such a trip to the best of my knowledge.

The Giant Planets

Image credit: SpaceX

In his 2017 Guadalajara presentation, Elon Musk included at the end graphics of his spaceship passing Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, on the surface of Europa, along the rings of Saturn and at the surface of Enceladus. A Hohmann Transfer orbit to Jupiter requires three times the energy and 3.4 times the time required to get to Mars, but if the Starship is as capable as Elon intends it to be, a Jupiter trip is within its abilities. So far this is the most concrete plan for a human mission to the outer planets: a series of graphics in a presentation of a spaceship that has been called by its detractors a fantasy rocket. Saturn is twice the distance to Jupiter, so the realism drops. There are, though, quite robust plans for robots to the giant planets.


The largest planet in the solar system has so far been visited exclusively by American space probes: Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini, New Horizons and currently Juno. Juno is the first solar powered space probe to Jupiter; the rest have been powered by Radioisotope Thermal Generators. It will be joined in the next decade by two other solar powered probes, ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer or JUICE and NASA’s Europa Clipper. NASA has plans for another mission to Europa, the Europa Lander. Funding for both Europa missions was found by Republican Texas Representative John Culberson. Since he lost his reelection bid, both missions are in peril. While the Clipper has the support of the broader scientific community, the Lander does not. Both missions currently expect to be launched on the SLS, which is a risk factor per advocates of the space science community since it is not certain that the rocket will not be cancelled and bring down the probes with it, as happened with the Mars Voyager program in the 1970s. While Clipper has a direct ascent trajectory to Jupiter, the Lander will do a tour of the inner solar system, like JUICE, to pick up orbital velocity in order to reach Jupiter. There it will land on Europa for a battery-powered mission that will last a few hours. The scientific community would prefer to launch a lander after the Clipper has sent back information, and follow it up with an ice drilling mission, somewhere in the 2030s. China and Russia also have preliminary plans for missions to the Jupiter system which are not as publicized as NASA’s and ESA’s plans.


After the end of the Cassini mission in 2017, the most expensive space science mission in history, Saturn is without a robotic presence. But there have been several proposals in the most recent NASA Discovery and New Frontiers mission proposal requests. One of the finalists in the 12th Discovery competition was the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), also known colloquially as the Titan boat, to drop a floater in one of the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan. In the current New Frontiers proposal, round one of the two finalists is the Dragonfly mission. It is a concept for a nuclear powered drone in the skies of Titan. The other object of interest at Saturn is Enceladus, which has an underground ocean. The Enceladus Life Finder was proposed in the recent 13th Discovery competition, but was not even shortlisted.

The mission has been reworked into a proposal that might become the first private planetary mission, to be funded by Yuri Milner to the tune of $60 million. A solar powered small probe will fly by the South Pole of Enceladus while it is erupting and collect a sample. While the probe is leaving the Saturn system (it will not enter orbit), it will analyze the sample with modern analytical equipment, rather than the vintage 1990s equipment that Cassini had. Private space probes have been proposed since the start of the space age, but have not come into fruition yet. Most recent was the Sentinel Space Telescope from the B612 foundation that was to scan the skies in an orbit between Earth and Venus so as to catch asteroids coming from the sun side of Earth. While they did raise some $2 million, this was far less than the $500 million they needed according to their budget estimates. SpaceIL has managed to raise $95 million for its lander to the Moon through philanthropy, and Yuri Milner has given to both his exploration initiatives (Breakthrough Starshot and Breakthrough Listen) some $200 million, so the Enceladus mission may happen, assuming it can surpass any problems that arise during development.

Uranus and Neptune

The two ice giants have only been visited by Voyager 2 in 1986 and 1989 respectively. The logical progression is that they are to be visited by orbiters. There have been several proposals both for NASA and ESA over the years and a Uranus orbiter was the third priority flagship mission in the most recent Decadal Survey of the Planetary Science community, after the Mars caching probe which became Mars 2020 and a Europa Orbiter which became the Europa Clipper. In preparation for the next Decadal Survey, a study was performed by the ice giants community that found that there is compelling reason to visit both, and that it is more of an issue of orbital mechanics which one to select. Four options were studied, from a Uranus flyby with an atmospheric probe to orbiters for both planets. The missions assume launches on the SLS. The cheapest option would be a tad less expensive than Cassini/Huygens; the more ambitious missions would dethrone it as the most expensive space probe.

NASA headquarters apparently lacks sufficient manpower to supervise multiple flagship missions, and lack of supervision was one of the main reasons that the James Webb Space Telescope has suffered delays and cost overruns. If Europa Lander continues, we are not likely to see a Uranus or Neptune mission, and even if it is cancelled the situation is quite dicey, because Congress would need to appropriate the funding and the Government Accountability Office grant a New Start. In a recent paper by members of the New Horizons team, they calculated trajectories with flybys of the outer planets that would lead to Kuiper Belt objects. In one of the summer schools at JPL, a student team proposed a Uranus mission that would fit inside a New Frontiers budget, which if proven correct would be something that the scientific community would rally behind. So far, though, a mission to the ice giants remains in the realm of proposals. Perhaps in the next decade one of them might get selected leading, to a mission that, if all goes well, should arrive at one of the ice giants in the middle of this century.

The Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud

When I was growing up, the Solar System, which was the only planetary system known, had 9 planets. I got interested in space with the Neptune flyby in 1989 and I was looking forward to a mission to the last planet, Pluto. I had to wait another 26 years until New Horizons flew by Pluto, which at that time had been demoted from planet, a mistake in my personal opinion. New Horizons just encountered 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule by the New Horizons team, and it is currently sending back the data it collected. New Horizons scientists hope to fly by another object in the Kuiper Belt, though that would have to be discovered first. When the Voyagers crossed the Kuiper Belt it was still a theoretical concept; the first object other than Pluto was only discovered in 1992. Today some 3,000 objects are known, and some such as Sedna are considered likely to belong to the even further out Oort cloud, the origin of comets. Several comets have been encountered in the inner solar system but Ultima Thule is the first such object visited in its native environment. Scientists have proposed several planetary sized objects in the outer solar system, the most famous being Planet 9, which so far are all theoretical. There have been proposals to visit again this part of the solar system, the most mature of which was New Horizons 2, which would have been built from the spare parts of New Horizons and sent to Eris via a Uranus flyby, but none have moved beyond studies on paper.

Interstellar Space

Image: Concept poster of the JHUAPL interstellar probe. Credit: Johns Hopkins University.

This is a blog on interstellar travel, so many mission concepts using various engine technologies have been published here. I am limiting myself here to missions that use more mature technologies. In 2012 Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to pass the heliopause and enter interstellar space. Its twin Voyager 2 followed it in 2018. New Horizons will follow them sometime in the future, if it does not run out of power earlier. New Horizons is headed towards the IBEX ribbon, which the Voyagers missed because they are headed far from the ecliptic. Missions to the heliopause and beyond have been proposed by the heliophysics community since the start of the space age, but were not approved due to their high cost and risk.

There is currently a proposal for an interstellar probe being created by JHUAPL to be part of the next Heliophysics Decadal survey. The most accessible online summary of the proposal is at the FISO Telecon Archive at http://fiso.spiritastro.net/telecon/McNutt_9-5-18/ from a September 5 2018 presentation. There were also updates for the proposal at the 69th International Astronautical Congress in Bremen in October 2018 [http://iafastro.directory/iac/paper/id/44169/summary/] and at the 2018 Fall AGU meeting in Washington in December 2018. The Bremen presentation led to a Space.com article [https://www.space.com/42935-nasa-interstellar-probe-mission-idea.html]. There were two sessions at AGU dedicated to this proposal according to the online program, one of oral presentations and one poster session. Some of principal investigator’s Ralph McNutt’s slides have appeared online and someone did tweet with the hashtag #InterstellarProbe about one of the oral presentations at the AGU about dust in the Kuiper Belt. In the same session there was also talk of a Chinese interstellar probe, but I was not in Washington DC for AGU and I am not an AGU member in general so I do not know anything about that beyond the AGU summaries. I will try to summarize my understanding of the proposal based on what has been posted online.

The proposal as mentioned is for the next Heliophysics Decadal Survey and is to be delivered to NASA in February 2019. The scientific case for the mission is good; the Voyagers have whetted our appetites rather than solve the major questions about interstellar space. The problem with the Voyagers and New Horizons is that they were optimized for the planets; for that matter New Horizons does not even have a magnetometer because they would need amagnetic versions of the rest of its instruments, which would have doubled their cost. The goal is to have a probe at a distance of 1,000 AU in the time of 50 years. For this they would have to have it travelling at least twice the speed of Voyager 1. The probe will weigh in the same range as New Horizons (478 kg) or the Parker Solar Probe (685 kg), both of which are JHUAPL probes. Three options are being studied: an Oberth maneuver around the sun with a solid rocket stage to be carried at 4 solar radii from the surface (closest Parker approach is 8 solar radii); a powered flyby of Jupiter; and a New Horizons-style solid-fuel earth departure stage with Jupiter gravity assist. The launch vehicle so far is the SLS Block 2. Since they will be visiting the region they will also encounter a Kuiper Belt Object such as Quaoar, Ixion or Haumea. The fastest option currently, at 12 AU per year, would be a CASTOR-30XL upper stage using an Oberth maneuver around the sun, but at 50 years it would only get them to 600 AU or so.

We will not have to wait long for the report if it is released. Is NASA Heliophysics willing to go forward with this mission? So far, after the Parker Solar Probe and US participation in ESA’s Solar Orbiter, NASA Heliophysics does not have any flagships coming up. The longevity of the Voyagers, though, has shown several problems that arise in long lived probes. The Voyager team is hoping to push both probes to be active 50 year after their launch in 2027. Due to the decay of their RTGs they will have to start turning off instruments soon because there will not be enough power anymore for all of them. The Voyagers are the only mission that still mostly communicates in the S band with the Deep Space Network, so NASA is keeping old equipment just for them. Both are so far out that the minimum speed of their tape playback is higher than the maximum communication speed, so data is lost when played back to earth from the tape. On top of everything, with both Voyagers being built with 1970s technology that means that they are using computational tools of that time. When a website reported inaccurately that they were looking for a programmer that knew their archaic version of FORTRAN because one of their coders was retiring, the people that came forward on the web were also septuagenarians because of the obsolescence of that language. Which of the current programming tools will still be used some 50 years from now? As someone who constantly deals with unsupported computer systems as part of my day job, this is something that I relate to. Voyager 1 is currently at 145 AU and travelling at 3.6 AU/year. In 2027 it will be at 175 AU, a distance record that it will definitely hold for decades. The interstellar probe is intended to reach over 5 times that, which will require upgrades of the DSN.


There are many technical issues that arise in the process of space exploration, but so far I think that the biggest problem is money and interest. A spaceship to Mars can open the solar system from Mercury to Jupiter for human exploration. The NASA Office of Inspector General estimate for its Mars plans was at $221 billion for two missions to Mars, while the estimate of the National Academies of Science was at $300 to $500 billion. SpaceX believes that they can do this mission for a fraction of the cost with a rocket and a spaceship that will be more capable than anything ever built. They also believe that they can raise the money through their activities. On the robotic side, there are many interesting destinations, far more than what the budgets and oversight capacity can buy. It would be interesting to reread this article in a few years and see what has actually come to fruition from all these plans.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk January 25, 2019, 14:51

    What Would be the Benefits of an Interstellar Probe?

    On July 14th, 2015, the New Horizons mission made history when it became the first robotic spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Pluto. On December 31st, 2018, it made history again by being the first spacecraft to rendezvous with a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) – Ultima Thule (2014 MU69). In addition, the Voyager 2 probe recently joined its sister probe (Voyager 1) in interstellar space.

    Given these accomplishments, it is understandable that proposals for interstellar missions are once again being considered. But what would such a mission entail, and is it even worth it? Kevin F. Long, the co-founder of the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (i4iS) and a major proponent of interstellar flight, recently published a paper that supports the idea of sending robotic missions to nearby star systems to conduct in-situ reconnaissance.

    The paper, titled “Interstellar Probes: The Benefits to Astronomy and Astrophysics“, recently appeared online. The paper summarizes material that Long will be presenting at the 47th IAA Symposium on Future Space Astronomy and Solar-System Science Missions – which is part of the 70th International Astronautical Congress – on Oct. 10th, 2019; specifically, the session dealing with Space Agency Strategies and Plans.

    Full article here:


  • Thomas Goodey January 25, 2019, 16:12

    This is a brilliant survey article. It shows so clearly how the intelligent and informed amateur can often do much better than a professional in the field – because he has a fresh viewpoint and a better balanced attitude.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 25, 2019, 21:06

      Thank you, I like that you enjoyed it

      • Thomas W. Hair January 27, 2019, 7:45

        Ioannis, I concur with Thomas Goodey. Enjoyed reading your well written article.

  • ljk January 25, 2019, 16:55

    Wonderfully comprehensive summary of the status of our near-term space developments, Ioannis! That you had so much to write about shows not only your research efforts, but that there is so much happening and about to happen (and hopefully to happen) in space exploration!

    To supplement your information further, here is a new overview of China’s next plans for the Moon, which include an automated lunar base as you stated:


    Continuing with the Moon, here are the details on and images of Israel’s plan to place an automated lander there next month:


  • ljk January 25, 2019, 16:59

    So, apparently, NASA almost got a flotillaload of money to send humans to Mars by 2020, or 2024 at the latest:


    It would have come at the expense of just about everything else the space agency was working on, however, even if throwing money at an idea would have been enough.

  • John Donaldson January 25, 2019, 17:35

    You should probably avoid your analysis of Tesla, which is facile as well as inaccurate. For example, how did you arrive at your conclusion that Elon was firing employees in a snit? Or that the company was floundering? Tesla is eating up the luxury car market:
    Then your labored attempt to paint Elon as a tragic Greek hero suffering from hubris wouldn’t pass a freshman literary exam. What Elon has done in the electric car market, boring, solar panels and rocketry would be better compared to the 12 labors of Hercules. Your attempt at an ad hominem attack on Elon and Space X does a disservice to the very real challenge Space X is making versus the SLS. The fact that Space X has been rated to launch military satellites by breaking into the ole’ boys network is amazing in itself. By the way, if you have some connections with SLS, you should vet them.

    • jlandau January 25, 2019, 18:13

      Surely articles like the one below point to at least some reason for concern about Musk and Tesla, and perhaps the management style Musk seems to favor:


    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 25, 2019, 21:27

      I wrote this article before news came out of Elon eliminating some 10% of the positions at SpaceX and Tesla. If a company is going super great, you do not fire 10% of your staff, at a bare minimum it is bad for the morale of those that stay. Read the Wired article I have linked out, it does have Elon firing on a snit and it is corroborated by other articles. Hercules was a tragic hero: He went on his 12 works because he had killed his children and first wife on a fit of rage. He was constantly hounded by the godess Hera. Much as the 12 works ritually cleaned him of the murder of his children, if you read Greek Mythology you see him getting mad all the time with his host or passerby and killing people in a fit of rage: King Nestor of Pylos of Trojan War fame became king because Hercules killed his father and all his siblings. Let’s not forget how Hercules died: The centaur Nessus gave his second wife Deianeira his blood soaked tunic as he was dying, killed by Hercules, telling her that it will excite his love for her. At some point later, she hears of him cheating and sends him the tunic thinking it would make him love her more. Rather it puts Hercules in such pain that he creates and lights his own funeral pyre in order to end his suffering. Being the greatest hero of Greek mythology, does not stop you from being hubristic or being tragic, and while Elon has not had the kind of tragedy that your typical mythical hero has had, he definitely has had the hubris. My issue is with the online cheerleaders that say “if not by Elon, it is waste”, not Elon’s achievements.

      • John Donaldson January 28, 2019, 16:35

        “If not by Elon, it is waste…” add strawman to your tendentious presentation of Greek myth. No one is arguing that Elon is the measure of all things but you. Rather than pontifying on Greek myth and the various epic character flaws of Elon (some like hubris may be characteristic of many successful people), you should focus on the relative merit of the technology that Elon is bringing to the table. Also, drop the term ‘online cheerleader’ for individuals that disagree with your use of logical fallacies, it is disrespecting some longtime readers and commenters at this site.

    • Daniel Högberg January 28, 2019, 1:16

      What Elon has done is inspire a whole generation of youngsters (and people in their late 30’s like me) that had no hope for the future. Thanks to Elon several generations feel like the future at least has a chance of being bright and full of wonder! A man that publicly dares to dream big is what we need! It is not about if he makes it! The world is so small today, Im sure most young people feel like citizens of earth rather than Germans, Brittish or Americans, at least I do, we need bigger dreams than family, a 9-5 job and an SUV – we need wonder! It is about hopes and dreams which is fundamental for most human beings. We need it and we crave it!

  • John Donaldson January 25, 2019, 17:36
  • FrankH January 25, 2019, 17:52

    We went from firing previously owned V-2s to landing men on the Moon in less than 30 years. We wasted 20+ years on a dead end Space Shuttle with nothing to show for it.

    Getting past the Moon (or even long term Earth orbit) will require hardware – in space – to mitigate radiation issues from solar flares and Galactic cosmic rays. It will also require testing (again, in space, not on paper) of spinning habitable sections to generate artificial G.

    I don’t know how SpaceX is going to face these two issues, but at least they’re making an effort.

  • Ulrich Steffen January 25, 2019, 17:53

    Mr. Kokkinidis is obviously an “Elon Musk hater”. His comments on SpaceX and Tesla are very one-sided and sometimes downright hateful (By the way: What does Tesla have to do with the topic “The Next Steps in Space”?). Overall, this circuitous article remains qualitatively well below the usual level of Centauri Dreams.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 25, 2019, 21:32

      I am not an Elon hater, I really do not like his online cheerleaders. The Hawthorne company does not have magic dust that makes everything better as it is claimed on the web to such an excessive degree. I cheer SpaceX’s achievements like everybody else, I just do not believe that they are the only ones capable of making the future in space so spending space money on anyone else is a waste. Tesla is just emblematic of the SpaceX cult, and a showing that Elon Musk is just human, not a god.

      • Thomas W. Hair January 27, 2019, 7:47

        Again, I agree with you Ioannis. He should stick to rockets when gas is two bucks a gallon.

        • Alex Tolley January 27, 2019, 12:41

          Even if gasoline was free, we need to shift away from using fossil fuels that add net CO2 to the atmosphere. There are various solutions, but few are cleaner than all-electric vehicles.

          As I have said elsewhere, Tesla may not be the winner in this game, but his actions have changed the auto industry. For the better, IMO.

  • wdk January 25, 2019, 21:40

    This is another of the entries on this blog that will take a while to read
    and review, but thanks in advance!

    Regarding some of the human exploration issues touched on, today there was the following report.


    Just like with ‘Oumuamua’s transit, the likelihood that we would detect something like this is astounding, based on our reasonable preconceptions, yet there it was. We have a terrestrial rock from an early period of the Earth captured on the moon, made more likely because the moon was a closer object, and an astronaut picked it up as a sample on Apollo 14.

    Early rocks they were looking for, true. But this wasn’t the way it was planned.

    While review of the planned programs of exploration is encouraging, the plans do seem to unfold like milestone charts. But if all those milestones are achieved, there should be some interesting and unexpected elements connected with them.

    • ljk January 28, 2019, 10:09

      The idea of finding Earth rocks blasted from ancient impacts onto the Moon, including the possibility of them containing fossils, is not new. Very exciting that there is now some solid evidence to that possibility:




      This makes me wonder if the Moon may also have rocks from other worlds just waiting for us to find them. Has anyone yet found a meteorite on the Moon? I know we have on Mars via our rovers, so it is certainly possible.

      • Alex Tolley January 28, 2019, 16:25

        This makes me wonder if the Moon may also have rocks from other worlds just waiting for us to find them.

        The moon is probably the best “net” to capture and expose such evidence. Billions of years of capture. We just need a good way to search and detect them. Autonomous robots scouring the surface using the appropriate sensors seems the most likely way to achieve this…unless they are “deliberately buried”.

        • Ron S. January 28, 2019, 17:28

          I wonder. At least on Earth we have an atmosphere that decelerates meteors. They are of course modified by the extreme heat but what’s left (and better if it explodes) falls to the ground rather gently. Not so on the Moon. About all you’d have to go on is trace elements, and that is rarely sufficient evidence to make a determination.

  • Alex T. January 26, 2019, 7:01

    Very anti-“Elon Musk” biased article.
    Underestimating present SpaceX achievements and in same time somhow super-overestimating Russian Space agency future perspectives (that has no any future due to internal economy and political situation).

  • Michael January 26, 2019, 8:04

    The colonisation of the moon should be a national goal. Moving materials between the Earth and moon could be helped by the use of a laser system. The laser will bounce light back and forth between the ground and a spacecraft coming into land. The multi bounce has a lot of Advantages, no dust or exhaust to worry about, the energy can be stored and used again and it is quite efficient. The laser can also transmit energy to earth or other parts of the solar system. As for solar wind protection a global magnetic field can be formed by the use of super conductors at the very cold poles.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 19:53

      What would the US gain beyond prestige if she was to colonize the Moon? Apollo proved that there wasn’t any major resources to be gained from visiting the Moon, which is why, along with the risk to the astronauts, it was ended. The US is currently suffering from several national ills. Would any of them be solved by colonizing the Moon? Will it solve terrorism? Will it solve say the skyrocketing cost of health care? Poverty and malnutrition? High taxes? I am all in favor, but simply there are higher priorities in this country, which is why it will advance slowly with fits and starts

      • Alex Tolley January 28, 2019, 1:31

        Economics is about resource allocation. There will always be an argument for fewer guns and more butter when public funds have to be allocated. If there are to be significant resources spent on non-commercial space activities that are publicly funded, there needs to be a rationale. Sometimes that takes time, like the commercial satellite business. It is arguable that high energy physics projects are a waste of resources too. However, we don’t stop funding science, and a scientific moon base might well be worth having for its long term benefits. What I do suggest is that once space activities are commercial and privately funded, that argument disappears, as the investors now use their funds for a private operation.

  • David January 26, 2019, 10:25

    The Orion wikipedia page has a list of all the planned and proposed SLS missions between now and 2033. They end with a Venus Mars flyby. You have to read the Planetary Society reference .
    I would add suborbital is going to be private for tourism and of course Breakthrough Starshot.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 19:55

      I did, simply I submitted this article to Paul a couple of weeks ago. Even online, it takes a bit of time between writing and publishing, especially a long article that takes weeks to write

    • ljk January 29, 2019, 10:11

      I really have to ask what good would a manned flyby of Venus or Mars do in terms of learning about those worlds that could not or has already been done by automated probes? Gain further experience for manned interplanetary travel leading to colonization, perhaps.

  • David January 26, 2019, 10:28

    Coincidence I got curious too. The Planetary Society story is very enlightening . With a lot of political upheaval the NASA director is trying to build a quiet consensus.

    • ljk January 28, 2019, 11:39

      Which Planetary Society article are you referring to? Can you provide a link?

  • Gary Wilson January 26, 2019, 15:01

    I love what Elon Musk is doing at SpaceX and it will remain a huge competitor of NASA if it can earn enough money with its various activities and not only survive but thrive. That remains an open question. I feel it might have been better to leave the whole Tesla component of the article out since it is not a story of a space exploration company but rather mainly a criticism of Elon Musk. Having said that, it is important to have information on both the strengths and weaknesses of all the major players and Dr. Kokkinidis has provided a great deal of that. Thank you for the article. The key feature of SLS that continues to worry me is the seeming lack of willingness of NASA to commit to development of re-usable rockets in an effort to greatly reduce launch costs. To repeat something I have said before NASA has estimated that each launch of SLS will cost 1 to 2 billion dollars! This just isn’t a tenable approach and simply must change if NASA is to have any hope of making SLS or a similar “heavy” launch system successful. Once again thank you for the article Dr. Kokkinidis. It obviously took a great deal of time and effort to write.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 26, 2019, 22:43

      After the failure of the space shuttle NASA came to the conclusion that reusability is not worth it for rockets. SpaceX claims that it is much cheaper to reuse the rocket than to build a new one, but they have yet to reuse a rocket more than two times and have not passed significant savings to their customers. It seems that SpaceX’s competitors have come to the conclusion that reusability is worth it, so they are pursuing it, differently though than SpaceX.

      • Gary Wilson January 27, 2019, 14:33

        Thank you for the reply Dr. Kokkinidis. I think my key point was cost per launch of SLS. The payload is large but with only 1 or 2 launches per year costing billions I can’t see how it can ever become a transformative system to get mass into space. As you say other companies are now undertaking reusable rockets. I will be interested to see which approach becomes most effective. Building outposts on the Moon and Mars will mean lifting a lot of mass and I think I know where my money would be placed in a wager. Single use rockets have been likened to taking a flight on a 747 from New York to London and then discarding the plane.

  • Andrew Wright January 26, 2019, 15:02

    Any humans landing on Europa are going to require significant radiation shielding, which may be tricky in a surface spacesuit.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 19:57

      Current spacesuits do not provide sufficient radiation protection even on Lunar orbit, let alone Europa. The Apollo astronauts got away with what would be considered today insufficient protection because of the whole national emergency status of Apollo and the small length of time they spent on the Moon in general. Europa, I agree, it’s a whole other category

      • ljk January 28, 2019, 11:34

        If we are going to set up a manned science station or colony on Europa, they will need to burrow under the ice. Or build something like a big igloo over their station if they cannot or do not want to become aquanauts. Frozen water in layers makes for an excellent radiation shield.

        • ljk January 28, 2019, 13:30

          As for this presumed station or colony living under the ice of Europa, if the human occupants want to explore the Europan surface, they can send up radiation-hardened rovers and other mobile robots to perform those tasks.

  • Andrei January 26, 2019, 16:14

    Thank you for a well written article and summary of where the space programs are taking us in the next decades.
    As you correctly pointed out, management by commité do have drawback so end proposals have compromises that solve only part of the problem, by creating new ones.
    I looked into the lunar way station idea (LOP-G) and found no reason for having one such unless we already have regular visits to the Moon, or a Moon base in place. (Same conclusion.)
    Had the idea of such a base been moved over from the Mars program, as such a station have a use there: Excursions to Phobos and Deimos to for driving remote controlled rovers directly on Mars, and finally as an emergency hold both for provisions and perhaps even as a backup craft if a major catastrophe occur.
    While at the Moon needs are there for a station right now.

    The bad part is that the crew at LOP-G, or in Musk spacecraft to Mars will not have protection against cosmic radiation. And Musk show that ‘Starship’ at Europa? Have it hardened electronics already? Even if a human only slowly will die from radiation poisoning, electronics will fail much sooner. All spacecraft have had problems of some kind in the van Allen belts at Jupiter.
    I view the idea of even showing such images to be irresponsible!

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 17:34

      LOP-G’s utility depends on what your target is. If the target is Mars, it is definitely better than a Moon base because you do not need to develop a lunar lander. If the target is the Moon, the main advantage is technological maturity and logistics. Say we have a 3 person base on the Moon’s surface. In that case we will need to land 1,5 tons of food per year just to keep them fed. Say we do go with the agriculture approach, we do need then to land a greenhouse and produce those 1.5 tons. We would still need to send stuff like seeds and fertilizer and spare parts for the greenhouse. More importantly though, we do not know how to create a base on the surface of another world. Soft landing the first cylinder is the easy part. Can it withstand burial with Moon dist, or will that prove too corrosive? Will the bulldozer prove able to move regolith, or will it break down around the third scoop? There is a mentality going around the web that all you need for a moon base is an internet connection to Earth and an X-box. Our know how from the space stations so far can be transferred to a lunar orbit station more easily than on a surface station. In my personal opinion though let’s just make SOMETHING. From the end of Skylab until the Russians came abroad and shared with the Americans what it takes to actually run a space station the US space community was engaged in a series of fights over whether the future space station is to be a space lab or a space factory or a space dock for spaceships, and in the end little was moving forward. LOP-G is likely not the best solution, but we can have the first element up in 3 years and it has high TRL. In 3 years we are likely to still be testing the new lunar lander

      • Andrei January 31, 2019, 19:12

        I see your point. And it’s a valid one that we do know how to make a space station as we know how to build one.
        But just as you say the real test is just as you say the Lunar surface, potential electrical discharges from moving dust at dawn.
        If a habitat will get into any kind of problem with the material it need to be surrounded with to get protection from both temperature changes and radiation and depending on sharpness of rocks – a known problem it could very much be a problem also from pH as the habitat most likely will be inflatable one.
        Creating a greenhouse where the bacteria and fungus don’t run amok will be a challenge in itself. One solution would be to introduce Collembola and some carefully selected species of Nematoda. Very little studies have been made in this respect, but I mentioned in a previous post an idea I have – which include precisely these to balance the system and avoid uncontrolled growing number of non desirable organisms.

  • Charley January 26, 2019, 17:07

    Well written and interesting, but of considerable length, and I was only able to get through a portion of it (intend to read the rest). A few years ago I read an series of articles in scientific American concerning the outlook for the future of space. One thing that really stuck with me was an article titled ‘Making Money in Space.’.
    In a prosaic way making money is what the world is really all about, you need it to further whatever ambitions you have, all the rest is pretty much theory.

    The way I see it in brief, is the fact that if we’re talking about making money, which will be a necessity for anything else that needs to be done in outer space, it will probably be done by robotic workers which don’t require any particular outside support, and whose needs are minimal. It’s getting to be very difficult to envision a need for humans in space except for the rare occasion where the itch to explore needs to be scratched. And that’s always going to be a costly proposition, so who’s going to pay for that and what will be the motivation? Before everyone jumps down my throat and says that people need new frontiers to conquer, just remember that we may find space to be nothing but a very large assemblage of various rocky bodies with not much else to offer.
    I would hate to be so brutally frank in my opinions, but there’s not a whole great deal of reason to believe that that opinion is too far from the mark.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 26, 2019, 22:51

      There is no good reason to explore space, that is a given. Then again humankind explored the earth because of weak reasons like curiosity. We are seeing access to space cost drop, but so far it is not quite profitable to explore. We are not in the era where spice cost 2,000 times in Europe what is cost in the Spice Islands thus making this kind of trip profitable, even when you lost 80% of the ships and the crew: see Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, where he actually died but the trip had a profit. Not to mention that colonialism was not that great on the colonized, to say the least. Then again the Portuguese would send a voyage of exploration further down Africa whenever a new king took the throne, up until Vasco Da Gama went to India and came back with a crazy profit on the spice. We will never know

      So far the benefits of exploration have been on earth. There is no space economy, beyond telecom and remote sensing satellites. NASA’s Discovery program led directly to cubesats through technological development, but none of the Discovery mission brought back gold or petroleum or rare earths or whatever is valuable. We are still in the weak reasons phase: Because it’s there

      • Charley January 27, 2019, 17:47

        Appreciate the reply and well written article by yourself. First off, this want to say that colonization was not conclusively by Europeans, but other groups such as the Mongols attempted to conquer most of the known world, in their time. And not all colonization was necessarily to the detriment of those who were colonized. There were benefits that flowed in both directions despite what others may have heard.
        That aside, the matter how lands were opened up our for what reason here on earth, there were exploitable resources that created exchanges of wealth by all parties involved.
        At the present time, at least the mineral resources (which is what primarily is available in outer space) is not readily accessible simply due to high upfront cost to begin their exploitation. If the Astro geologist are to be believed, the asteroids and possibly the moon contained large concentrations of usable mineral wealth that can be used right here on earth. Personally I would prefer that asteroids to be mined rather than earth-based resources simply to prevent further degradation of our environment. But that can be argued I’m certain by others. And it may be possible that exploitation of mineral wealth from outer space may always be beyond a reasonable valuation in current economies. It’s hard to say. What may be a possible compromise on the situation would be the use and expansion of robotic entities which could perform whatever task they were used for at a much more efficient manner than men.
        It might be logical to have NASA pay private industry to further robotic research to the Max with the eye on the end goal of creating fairly autonomous two legged robots that might in the future become helpful assistants around the home. This would be a win-win situation for all involved in the sense that NASA would obtain the very best in terms of new robotic ideas and in exchange private industry would obtain a source of funds to do research in this field which would yield robots to be sold to the general public, and in turn would produce (I believe) fairly enormous tax revenues to be returned to the federal government. As far as I can see the field of robotics and its applications in the civilian environment is almost limitless and it is extremely useful. Here’s a means in which outer space could actually go to pay for itself.

  • Geoffrey Hillend January 26, 2019, 17:46

    The heavy launch vehicle does not have to be reusable, but only the interplanetary spacecraft to be launched like one which uses VASIMR for propulsion.

    • Bruce D. Mayfield January 26, 2019, 19:46

      Reuseablity is the key to affordablity, if that can even be attained. (big if ) Imagine what life would be like if we had to buy a new vehicle every time we needed to go out for groceries.

      The vast increase in cost of manned versus unmanned makes manned missions seem very impractical, and that’s why manned space flight has sputtered to a near halt since the Apollo program.

    • Alex Tolley January 26, 2019, 22:53

      And speaking of VASIMR, I wish that the claimed obstacle – a MW nuclear reactor – would end, now that we are seriously contemplating beamed energy for various uses. Electric engines are clearly the way forward for propulsion, and beamed energy gets us away from the low-thrust-only mode, to efficient, higher thrust propulsion.

      • Bill January 28, 2019, 8:23

        As best I can determine VASIMR is dead. Their third year of NASA funded development ended in August and to date I have seen no information suggesting Ad Astra accomplished their goal of a 100 hour test run of VASIMR. Any information to the contrary would be welcome.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 26, 2019, 23:02

      The VASIMR engine has taken 20 years of advanced development to reach TLR 5. Keep that in mind when we are talking about technology that is not there yet. The most powerful electric propulsion engine is on BepiColombo, which have a thrust of 250 mN (290 per another source). On top of that BepiColombo is solar powered since it is going towards the sun, mission to further out will most likely need a nuclear power source. Dawn has so far been the only mission where the in board propulsion was as significant as the original launch vehicle in terms of velocity change

      • Alex Tolley January 27, 2019, 12:54

        While I appreciate VASIMR is perhaps the highest profile example of a high power electric engine, there is the wider idea of which propulsion technologies will be most important in the future. Generally, we either have high thrust approaches – chemical and NTR – or low thrust – ion engines and solar sails. What power beaming offers is a way to bridge that gap, allowing low thrust techniques to enter the high thrust area. Beamed sails offering 10s of thousands of g’s clearly would be a groundbreaking performance gain if they could be scaled up to conventional sized-vehicles. For robotic probes, miniaturization helps to reduce the mass, something impossible with crewed spacecraft.

        I know this is speculative and tangential to your post, but it is important because the development of such systems may obsolete the programmatic approach outlined. SpaceX FH already largely obsoletes SLS, and it is developed. If Starship works, then the SLS will have nowhere to hide at all as a heavy lift vehicle, which in turn will undermine some of the projects that assume it must be available.

        • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 20:28

          The Delta IV Heavy can launch 14,220 kgs to Geostationary transfer orbit. Falcon Heavy can launch about the same, we are not sure exactly, despite having over 2,5 times the launch capacity to LEO compared to Delta IV Heavy. Why? Because the Falcon Heavy is missing a sufficiently energetic upper stage. If Elon Musk was to use the Raptor as an upper stage on the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, which what the US Air Force is paying for when funding the Raptor, he would remedy that deficiency. This is the only major upgrade that the Falcon Heavy can take, it is an evolutionary final point for the family. The Merlin engines are pretty close to their maximum potential with the current technology. On the other hand the Space Launch System, while far more expensive than the Falcon Heavy, is at the start of this evolution. Block 1B will have the exploration upper stage, block 2 will have advanced side boosters and a J-2X upper stage and there are proposals for a nuclear upper stage. I would not say that the Falcon Heavy has made SLS obsolete. If anything SpaceX has trouble finding commercial payloads for the Falcon Heavy and while it has indeed made the Delta IV Heavy obsolete, recently it was only flying once every couple of years.

          Decades now there has been quite a bit of discussion among professionals and enthusiasts that instead of making one monolithic structure that needs a mega rocket, make it into small pieces and assemble it in space. Yet in every case one big structure has won. Let’s not forget that both Mir and ISS being modular structures were delayed in their final assembly because unforeseen circumstances grounded their launcher: The collapse of the USSR in Mir’s case and the Columbia disaster in ISS’s case. Say that the options of the Mars craft is 6 launches by a 97% reliable SLS or 10 launches by a 97% reliable Falcon Heavy. In the first case there is a 17% chance of a launch failure leaving the project stranded until RTF, while in the second it is a 27%. Be aware also that the Shuttle was 98.5% reliable and the Falcon 9 is at 96.5%.

          • Alex Tolley January 28, 2019, 1:47

            I think your argument just assumes performance, rather than economics, is important. The F9 delivers payloads to LEO and beyond at a much lower price than the Delta-IV. That SpaceX is gaining customers, even with teh military, suggests that their performance is “good enough”.

            As has been pointed out, teh SLS is hopelessly uneconomic. If the FH cannot find customers, then neither will the SLS, except for publicly funded projects.

            Launching payloads as single units can only work up to a point. The ISS clearly was too large. On Earth, we don’t build large buildings in factories and transport them as a unit to their site. Similarly, my Amazon deliveries are not brought to my front door by an interstate big-rig. If the current most economic approach is to deliver payloads to LEO, then an inter-orbital tug using efficient propulsion should make the final delivery to GEO and beyond. If/when that is developed and economic, that will be the solution. Large space structures will be built in space and towed to their destination. This is the approach we take to building oceanic oil rigs.

            The bottom line is that economics should dominate, not pure performance. We need to be building teh space equivalent of commercial jets, not military planes.

  • Alex Tolley January 26, 2019, 23:11

    Whatever one thinks of Musk, he has changed several business approaches. He made his fortune as one founder of PayPal which still represents one of the best ways to securely transfer money without needed to spend a lot of time setting up payee details. Tesla basically rejuvenated the electric car business and the resulting effect on the auto industry is apparent. While Tesla may never compete well in the low-end market (I suspect China will soon have brands dominating that segment) he has changed the direction of every major manufacturer. SpaceX has pioneered the reusability launch vehicle market and their launch cadence is clearly accelerating and displacing the traditional leaders. He has continued to confound the naysayers with their “hobby rocket” jibes. Bezos has taken the same approach, and competitors have been forced to adapt. If his ambitious “Starship” works, we will see a retro design out of the pulp era of SF, and like stories and movies, he is building the hull out of stainless steel! (He abandoned carbon fiber very quickly. Will we see “Destination Moon” style magnetic boots to inspect the hull in space?).

    Is Amber Heard the cause of his stress, or is it the insane hours he is putting in across several companies to solve their operating problems? His various [expensive] public gaffes may be due to that. There may well be an element of hubris there, but don’t underestimate the impact he has had and may continue to have. He may fail, but he has undoubtably shaped the future.

    • Brett Bellmore January 28, 2019, 7:35

      “PayPal which still represents one of the best ways to securely transfer money without needed to spend a lot of time setting up payee details. ”

      As long as you’re not buying a perfectly legal product PayPal happens to dislike, anyway. That’s a freaking huge defect in a money transfer system.

      • Alex Tolley January 28, 2019, 16:29

        Such as? A cursory googling does not show up anything.

        • Brett Bellmore January 29, 2019, 7:28

          See, for instance. When they came out with that, I started boycotting them. Very uppity of a mere payment processing company to tell you what you can and can’t pay for with your own money.

          They’re also getting into “deplatforming” in a big way. Not just individuals, but even social media companies that refuse to jump on the deplatforming bandwagon.

          Note, I don’t blame Musk for this, they seem to have started doing it after Musk’s influence declined.

          • Alex Tolley January 29, 2019, 13:38

            Isn’t the example you give due to their inability to determine if the legal background check is made before the transaction? Regulation of sales at gun shows is a contentious issue precisely because of this issue. This is getting way off topic.

            • Brett Bellmore January 30, 2019, 6:06

              No, that’s just an excuse. But, yes, off topic. I seriously dislike PayPal now, and was once a frequent user.

  • Robin Datta January 27, 2019, 0:06

    The US system is the best system to make money for those who shoulder their way in to a place at the trough: lobbyists, legislators, contractors, subcontractors, sub-subcontractors, etc., their boards of directors, their stockholders, the hierarchical “turfdoms“of government and quasi-government agencies. They don’t have a prayer against lean & mean private enterprise.

    Even in science fiction of space stories, one gets the impression of a monolithic organization rather than an unruly herd. It is a good chance that the imperative for extension and expansion will impose such societal structures.

    • Alex Tolley January 27, 2019, 13:17

      There is a good case to be made that NASA should return to its NACA roots, facilitating the public goods and services that private enterprise should fulfill. I recall when the Orion capsule was being designed that NASA said it could be done quickly and cheaply based on Apollo knowledge and new techniques. Didn’t happen. The SLS debacle, as well as its Ares I & V precursors, are further examples.

      If NASA did exploration and mapping, then JPL has proven outstanding in delivering the needed craft. NASA R&D centers should remain to develop technologies that industry should use. Arguably, that is what Bigelow has used for its inflatable habitats.

      But NASA should get out of the business of developing crewed vehicles and operating them. Let private industry do that.

      As Ioannis has stated upthread, there is no proven need (i.e. market) for commercial activities that require human presence in space. Maybe SpaceX, BO, and others will demonstrate there is a market for space tourism. I hope so. That would stimulate demand for facilities like hotels in space, both in orbit[s] and at destinations. The route to get there is developing low-cost access to space and space operations, something best achieved by profit-seeking, competitive businesses, leveraging off government R&D and exploration.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 20:44

      American science fiction has a tendency to be written by people of a libertarian tendency, and they project their values in their writing. Much as I am person who does not idolize government, I also do not idolize the private sector. If anything the economic crisis of 2008 was caused by the private sector running wild, and the fewer the regulations in the different national markets the worse the subprime crisis was. I remember a line from my landscape architecture book: It is only the government that can mobilize the resources of an entire country for a major goal. If space exploration becomes profitable and affordable to the private sector, be sure that it will move to the private sector. So far it will remain the classical example of the need for government as we get taught in Political Economy class. As for the US system of lobbyist and the like being shady and corrupt, you should see the rest of the world. Half the news coming about Vostochny spaceport are of unbelievable corruption, as in diamond encrusted Mercedes for the contractors. Alas, in Greece we had pretty similar stories in the run up to the 2004 Olympics

      • Alex Tolley January 28, 2019, 2:13

        While it is quite true there are no clear commercial space activities other than satellites today, that does not mean that the process publicly funded space projects use has to stay teh same. NASA has become a jobs program, managed to ensure continued funding, however wasteful. It manages space activity like an airline insisting that it design and build its own aircraft, ATC, airports, etc. That is not the way to do things to ensure an ecosystem develops that more efficiently uses resources.

        While private greed can create severe problems, that is nothing compared to the ability of the government to use its power to do unchecked damage. Far better for government to decide what it would like to do, then let private contractors compete to execute the various components. It is just this model that “NewSpace” companies are using to successfully compete with incumbents.

        While I would like to see the old idea of a scientific moon base (I often rewatch my copy of BBC’s 1970’s tv series Moonbase 3, I recognize that technology is changing and that it may be a lot cheaper and “good enough” to use robotic vehicles to do much of the work, managed by people safely on Earth. If AGI robots are built within the next century, then I would expect that humans will be largely removed from the picture of space exploration, in situresearch, and any economic development. So be it. Economics is will be the best way to decide on approaches, whether public, private, socialist, or capitalist systems. The US has strayed from this for too long. We may finally be correcting this. As for chosen projects, we should aim for ROI, not prestige. What long-lasting political benefit did Apollo bring to the US?

        • Bruce D. Mayfield January 28, 2019, 18:30

          From Calvin and Hobbs cartoon: Question on Calvin’s school history test: What was the significance of the Erie Canal?
          Calvin’s astute but teacher enraging answer: Cosmologically speaking, probally nil.

        • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 28, 2019, 18:34

          There are a lot of people worldwide that would vehemently disagree with the neoliberal approach of the private sector doing the government’s job. The private sector also has the ability to do unmitigated damage, see for that matter most resource extraction in the Third World by multinationals. On the other hand I completely disagree with the government doing the private sector’s job, in Greece that has failed miserably. I think the US Senate did a bad job creating the SLS back in 2010, it should have made a competition to choose the next rocket. Then again the SLS has not exploded in terms of cost as the Constellation program did, which is why it is still around. Back in 2010 Congress, which was controlled by Democrats as was the White House, made it clear that either space exploration will take place using existing contractors in existing traditional space areas, or it will not be funded at all. The current Congress is even more wedded to the traditional aerospace contractors. The SLS will take place, whether it is efficient or not, think of it as the aerospace equivalent of corn ethanol subsidies. DoD is willing to replace the Delta IV but NASA’s appropriators are not willing to replace SLS.

          The long lasting benefit that Apollo brought to the United States was to prove that it was the most advanced system in the world, rather than the Soviet Union. I remember growing up in the 1980s all the talking heads in Greece saying how Socialism was the final fate of the human race and how while the Soviet path may not be the right path to Socialism, we should try and find the right path following elements of the Soviet model, the Yugoslav model, the Swedish model, the German model or even the Baathist model. This might sound counterintuitive but the fall of the dictatorships of the European South (Papadopoulos, Salazar, Franco) led people to see Socialism as the path to freedom, not capitalism which is what the dictatorships practiced. Apollo was always the counterexample: If the USSR is so great, how come it never sent anyone on the Moon? The US sent an artificial satellite and a man weeks after the USSR, yet somehow the USSR never sent anyone on the Moon.

          • ljk January 29, 2019, 10:25

            As the West learned for certain around 1990, the Soviet Union did indeed try to place a human on the Moon in the 1960s, or at the very least get one to fly around Earth’s celestial neighbor, before the USA did.

            Had they had a bit better luck, had their space leader expert Korolev not died during a botched surgery in 1966, had the Apollo 1 fire taken place in space during that first mission or a later one, the latter at least might have happened before Apollo 8 did.

            The Soviets failed in this effort, but they were much closer than the general populace realized at the time. One big reason is that the Soviets publicly claimed they had never tried to go to the Moon after all and were focusing on their manned space station efforts.

            The details are here:


            If you look at the early decades of the Space Age, the Soviets had racked up many firsts: The first orbiting satellite, the first living creature in orbit, the first human in space, the first woman, the first probes to flyby and later impact the Moon and Venus, the first orbiting and then soft landing lunar probes, the first multimanned space mission, the first EVA, the first space station, and so forth.

            If you want to get really technical, they did succeed in getting the first living beings to fly around the Moon in 1968 with Zond 5.

  • Stick of Rock January 27, 2019, 3:41

    I have a question about a potential target for an interstellar mission.

    If, as expected, LSST discovers interstellar objects passing through the solar system, we can consider missions to study them. These could be seen as interstellar missions in some sense.

    If such objects are not found, then it may be seen as more worthwhile to chase down ʻOumuamua. The longer the absence of interstellar objects, the stronger the arguments for an ʻOumuamua mission would be, but the further the distances involved.

    Even if advanced propulsion methods can be considered, for how long will we know ʻOumuamua’s trajectory with sufficient accuracy to use them?

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 17:42

      ʻOumuamua is simply the first object we have discovered, it is not a fluke. LSST expects to discover a dozen or so interstellar objects per year, no need to chase that one specifically. There was a proposal at the time of the Chelyabinsk meteor that a space probe be kept around for encounters with such objects of opportunity, and it could be use also for interstellar objects. Also (514107) 2015 BZ509 is in retrograde orbit at Jupiter’s distance and is believed to originate from outside the solar solar system because of its orbit

      • ljk January 28, 2019, 10:21

        That number of how many interstellar visitors will be detected each year keeps changing. First it was ten per year right after Oumuamua was found in 2017. Then later it was reduced to maybe one per year. Then someone came up with the figure of 100 septillion Oumuamuas roaming the Milky Way galaxy and that this would mean at least one interstellar visitor impacting Sol every 30 years.

        So as with SETI, let us ramp up the search and find out what the real story is, so we can at least get a better grasp on some actual numbers. Having a piece of another solar system come to us is priceless. Especially if it acts like a light sail. :^)

      • Stick of Rock January 28, 2019, 10:24

        Thank you. I do hope that the predicted discoveries of LSST prove to be as expected, but was thinking of the potential missed opportunity if they do not. I didn’t know about (514107) 2015 BZ509, which might well be worth a closer look, even if the LSST discoveries are as we would like

  • Gareth Wilson January 27, 2019, 5:34

    “When he runs into trouble setting up the production lines, and gets in a foul mood after his breakup with Amber Heard,”

    Give the guy a break, we’ve all been there.

    • ljk January 28, 2019, 10:39

      You dated Amber Heard? ;^)

      Speaking of guys with way too much money for one individual, serious space ambitions, and problems with relationships, when is Jeff Besos going to attain SpaceX levels with his space plans, Blue Origin?

  • Mark January 27, 2019, 13:35

    Some comments:
    1) “Democracy is not a regime that produces the optimum solution”
    s/Democracy/Constitutional Republic/

    2) Elon Musk, whether visionary genius or smoke-and-mirrors charlatan, is a high energy individual who has definitely shaken things up in several industries. What is he running now, three companies? Five? Eight? I lost count. And father to five kids? Yikes. We should drop everything and try to discover and replicate his power source.

    3) Regarding sanitation of solid waste on an interplanetary space vessel, why couldn’t it simply be dried (to recover the water) and sequestered for later use as fertilizer once landed? As for the sheer quantity of the waste, it would not represent a net increase in the mass of the spacecraft. Once you are in coast phase, the mass of the spacecraft is largely unchanged until you land. If not needed for fertilizer, instead jettisoned in a separate container immediately prior to EDL, would it not burn up upon entering the atmosphere?

    4) If, as scientific evidence now increasingly indicates, our entire universe is an elaborate computer simulation, should we not be directing our space travel efforts into “hacking the mainframe?” It should be possible for an astronaut to teleport instantaneously to any arbitrarily remote place, simply by simultaneously changing the 4D space-time coordinates of each subatomic particle in the array of registers of main memory which defines the astronaut. The return trip would be just as trivial.

    • Alex Tolley January 27, 2019, 18:08

      Maybe there is an API. An effective transporter or hyperspace drive. Now that would be a very cool discovery. However, I don’t think the premise is true. Experiments looking for granularity in space (i.e. bits) have not found anything. The simulation hypothesis is even more speculative than the holographic universe.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 20:52

      1) Any regime does not produce an optimum solution. I am more of a friend of the ancient direct democracy, as opposed to the current constitutional republic, though in both cases it did not produce the best solution. For the failings of Ancient Athens at the hands of a demagogue, see Aristophanes – The Knights

      2) Some people are just unique and exceptional, and Elon is definitely among them. I would say Ender’s game is a great example in fiction on how hard it is to create a great leader.

      3) The problem with sanitation is to get rid of the pathogens. If we were to just dry, as soon as we re-wetted the solids you would see the pathogens appear again, dry simply would transform them to a more resistant form. Wastewater treatment’s main process is to change the bacterial environment so that pathogens are outcompeted by more beneficial bacteria, in addition to removing nutrients so that the water can be used again.

      4) Before we bend the rules Matrix style, let’s see first how we can bend them.

  • Gary Wilson January 27, 2019, 14:47

    I don’t like to take a completely negative approach but to my mind the Space Shuttle was a complete boondoggle. It guaranteed a cheap way into low earth orbit with extremely frequent launch times (read the early output from NASA). It quickly became obvious that it was mostly smoke and mirrors. Putting the crew capsule on the side of massive rocket engines was a disaster. Ignoring such obvious key elements as the weather because the launch schedule was unrealistic was a second failure of management which was exposed in the investigation of the Challenger disaster (by Feynman I believe). Since the moon landings NASA has been a complete failure in manned space exploration. Their biggest achievement of the last 45 years using humans in space was possibly the repair of the Hubble space telescope. I believe the only missions that would justify the expense of a continued manned presence in space would be landings on Mars and the establishment of a research base and later a colony there. Personally I would prefer an international effort involving as many countries as possible.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 27, 2019, 23:33

      I am old enough to have read all the literature about how the Space Shuttle was the solution to all problems while in middle school, after Challenger. If you read space history articles, including several good websites online, you will read on how early, before Challenger there was a real effort to indeed make the Shuttle the solution to all problems, and whatever issues popped up were attributed to growing pain. Best of all several early Shuttle missions barely avoided total disaster, but that was kept from the general public. However even its most ardent opponents have to recognize one thing: even today it has sent more people to space that all other spaceships combined. Otherwise its achievements have been mostly in the negative: Back in the 1970s the US had film reconnaissance satellites that would be discarded after they had finished their film, even if they were otherwise working perfectly. The idea of the Shuttle was that it would dock with them and replace the film cartridge which would allow the satellite to continue. The Hubble was a variation of those satellites, and a rather simplified one, changing the film would have been far more difficult than updating the instruments. The Hubble proved that changing film would not have been trivial, not to mention that before the first shuttle flight film satellites were rendered obsolete by electro-optical satellites. The Shuttle simply was not possible with late 1970s technology, and today knowing what we know using humans is superfluous. However I would dispute that the NASA manned spaced program has achieved nothing post Apollo. It is simply that it has not been as exciting. Running a space station and learning what are the results of exposure to space is not trivial. We would not want the first people to Mars to die on the way there, suffer dementia on the surface of Mars and fail to return, which is why we are quantifying what are the results of the space environment today in LEO first, before we sent people out having appropriate mitigation. The Journey to Mars was to be an international effort, otherwise the ESA’s offer of the Orion service module would not have been accepted.

      • ljk January 28, 2019, 11:22

        The U.S. Space Shuttle (aka, the Space Transportation System, how romantic) was a very expensive and glorified moving van. Often the fleet were given missions to fit their parameters so they had a purpose for existing and justifying the $500 million per launch cost.

        Yes, the Space Shuttle made it easier and faster to build and supply the International Space Station (ISS), but who can tell me – without looking – who is on the station right now? Who can tell me what projects they are working on and what benefits they will bring to the rest of us? And how sad is it that we are supposed to get excited over each cargo run to and from the station?

        I know not every space mission can or should be “glamorous” and Hollywood film level exciting, but that NASA focused for decades on a moving van with wings going into LEO over and over – and which killed 14 astronauts in two missions alone along the way – when automation and expendable rockets could have done the vast majority of the projects is almost criminal.

        Have we learned our lesson? Or is NASA being saddled to the whims of a government for funding and direction only going to continue to delay our expansion into the galaxy? Even Apollo should have been more than what it was, but the likes of Nixon and his cohorts ensured that those Apollo follow-on plans were left to collect dust. I know there are many who would prefer if space were just for science exploration, but that too will disappear if we keep relying solely on a government agency that has always had a very small piece of the federal pie while an uneducated public endlessly gripes about how too much money is spent on space. A bad combination that will not end well, especially if things get worse on this planet.

        I think it is high time that space supporters start getting more savvy about politics and how to reach the public. Space should be an easy sell, don’t you think?

  • Michael Spencer January 27, 2019, 18:00

    I’ve been reading this site since inception. I read it because it allows the interested amateur (me) to rub digital shoulders with thoughtful researchers and thinkers. And I read it because Paul Gilster reaches into the huge grab bag of often esoteric research, making accessible subject matter often quite difficult.

    Often I’ve bookmarked a dozen pieces to be savored without distraction while sunning in Mexico, where I can follow links, do additional checking, assess the views of others. I have learned through experience to trust this site. Paul Gilster has earned his reputation.

    But this unruly piece is shocking – shocking to find sophomoric tone and manhandled facts on Centauri Dreams. Indeed, points made about SX contaminate the piece generally.

    Nobody should get a pass, Paul.

    • Patrick Underwood January 30, 2019, 18:52

      Totally agree. This hit piece enclosed in a survey is pretty annoying.

      I wonder at people who can look at SpaceX’s accomplishments to date, based on a certain level of private and public funding, and not see the amazing disparity with NASA’s Orion/SLS progress, based on a vastly greater level of purely public funding over the same span of time. The contrast could not be greater. Neither the SLS nor the SH/Starship have flown, but just comparing the concepts–roughly the same payload mass flown by a hugely expensive taxpayer-funded, low flight rate, totally expendable system, versus a privately funded, high flight rate, totally reusable system–should extract at least some appreciation for SpaceX from any space enthusiast. But no; Musk is a hubristic robber baron/con artist, and NASA’s throw-away launch or two per year will take us to the stars. Sigh.

      • Ioannis Kokkinidis February 1, 2019, 19:25

        You are super welcome to write a rebuttal. My issue has always been with voluntarism, not volunteering but the belief that if you wish something hard enough it will come into existence. If Elon wishes the Super Heavy hard enough it will come into existence. Elon has the will but does not have the funding, there is no real market and the technical challenges are quite unprecedented. Reusability brings about a massive performance penalty, in the Falcon Heavy’s case from 15,000 tons to GTO for expendable it drops to 9,000 tons to GTO for partially reusable. The Space Shuttle was reusable, especially the expensive parts such as the engine, but it was the most expensive space launch system in history. I am among the people that was actually cheering for SpaceX’s achievements such as reducing the price of space launch for an American manufacturer to Russian levels ($5,000 per kg is the cost of the Soyuz and the Falcon 9), recovering the first stage and exploring the hypersonic retropropulsion, the launch of the Falcon Heavy. I think though that the Super Heavy may prove too big a bite to chew, just look at all the kinds of technical issues that the SLS is facing which is a much lower risk rocket by a more experienced team. Should we just hand waive them because it is Elon Musk? Because he wills it, it will happen? As Aesop put it in The Boasting Traveler (https://fablesofaesop.com/the-boasting-traveler.html), “Suppose this city is Rhodes. Now show us how far you can jump”

  • Charley January 27, 2019, 18:06

    A further addendum to my thoughts. So far what I see here is that we have plans to possibly go to the moon and other bodies. But simply, to what end? I can’t say it often enough that whether you are an individual, a family, a business, a government or what have you, one has to treat your money, as if it is your last dollar, because it may very well be your very last dollar. Money is not a god to me and I don’t want to put that out there is this that is the end-all of everything, in fact I would say personally for myself, it is only is important as the ability to be useful to buy a few things that you may need rather than endless luxuries.
    Here, I’m seeing conceptions that seem to border on luxuries rather than necessities. And that’s very, very bothersome. I look back to the TV show Star Trek and I often thought to myself what in the world were those people doing out there? And the answer always was – nothing ! They were going around and injecting themselves into situations in which, and let’s be honest here, they really had no business being involved in. And that’s what they were spending money on to generate the ships required for their endless five-year voyages. Of course, it helps the show to always have a antagonist out there in space (by the millions of civilizations) as it turned out, so that the drama would never end.
    But did the crew of the starship ever do anything that anybody would considered to be USEFUL ?? My answer is no. They seem to create greater problems than they solved, and again they were always requiring greater amounts of resources so that they could screw up the situation (wherever they found it) even further. That’s how I kind of see space travel, consumption of resources which cannot be sustained.

    • ljk January 28, 2019, 10:50

      If we are honest here about Star Trek, it was really about the exploration, exploitation, and especially the control of the Milky Way galaxy by the military as conducted through the branch of the United Federation of Planets called Starfleet. Anyone who has even a casual knowledge about the series from its start can see that, and its most recent reincarnations have only reinforced this.

      Is this how things will be if our civilization does go interstellar, assuming humans will still be human and being the main occupants and drivers of interstellar vessels? I want to say no since it will be much easier and relatively cheaper to have AI and robots run a starship, but who knows?

      I argued in my two-part article about the 1956 SF film Forbidden Planet in this blog that Star trek represents an antiquated paradigm about interstellar travel, exploration, and colonization, but that we are still stuck in this mode even though projects like Breakthrough Starshot are giving us a more realistic vision of how reaching the stars will really go. Time to let go of these old modes of thinking and planning in terms of real space exploration.

  • Rubens Smuel January 27, 2019, 23:00

    It is interesting to read what Ioannis Kokkinidis writes about Elon Musk and SpaceX, Somthing personal I guess against the cheering “mobs” and excitement that Elon brought back into space exploration and the opening opportunities due to cheap space launches.
    I did not noticed the same attitude towards NASA with her throwing money politic down the trench drain
    BUT Ioannis Kokkinidis had launched already a lot of papers and articles into orbit so I guess he speaks out of his experience.
    besides SpaceX & Tesla , a fascinating , eyes opening article !

  • David January 27, 2019, 23:22

    Well according to Star Trek we will have warp drive in 2063 after WW3 and then zip about the galaxy on magic mushrooms looking for red angels …….so dont think we will have to worry. We spend money like drunken sailors why not on space. We could get some great spin off tech. Now I think that will be more from breakthough starshot I still think a Venus Mars flyby and a Moon orbital will be fun.I found a couple of recentvpapers on starshot and warp drive I need to post. Get excited on starshot not so much onbwarp drive. On star trek. It is left not libertarian. It takes place in Marx post capitalist post socialist heaven of unlimited resources. because of the magic of the warp drive and transporter.

  • Brett Bellmore January 28, 2019, 7:40

    “While this kind of technology will work on earth orbit, and is planned for the LOP-G, it can be quite problematic for a protected destination such as Mars. If you are to reject something overboard while on a Trans Mars Injection orbit, it will simply follow you on the way to Mars. Would we really want to drop a hygienic bomb weighing several tons on to Mars with the colonists’ untreated waste?”

    “Protected destination”; This is the key point here: NASA treats Mars, indeed the entire universe outside geosynch, as purely a site for exploration, and wants to keep it as pristine as possible. Musk wants to *colonize* Mars. Obviously, “as pristine as possible” is not on the table when you’re colonizing.

    Sooner or later Musk’s colonization plans are going to come into direct conflict with that “protected destination” status. You don’t get to colonize Antarctica.

    • ljk January 28, 2019, 11:02

      Once corporations (and governments) figure out how to exploit and make vast fortunes from the rest of the Sol system, treating our celestial neighborhood as a pristine realm for science will disappear.

      Now I do not mean science will go away, simply that the science which benefits the space corporations will have the larger piece of the pie. I am neither praising nor supporting this, just trying to be realistic.

      I know many of us here would like a world where altruistic science and exploration for the benefit of all humankind reigns, but as we have seen since before the Space Age, this is not going to keep us in space. Funding has to come from somewhere, assuming our entire economic structure does not change.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 28, 2019, 19:00

      The issue is not the US government: Planetary protection is an INTERNATIONAL OBLIGATION of the United States according to the Outer Space Treaty, signed and ratified by 107 governments. When the US voted the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015, which allowed asteroid mining in that per the model of deep sea fishing mined resources can be property of the miner without owning the asteroid (forbidden by the Outer Space Treaty), the Russian Federation strongly protested and cried foul. There is strong aversion worldwide to the idea that some Yankee company will go out and exploit space’s natural resources leaving the rest of the world to pick up the pieces afterwards, just because they can. For an example see National Geographic’s Mars season 2 and the whole Lukrum story arc. The whole story of western colonialism is about exploiting the resources of the rest of the world for the metropolis’ benefit, any attempt to mine space’s resources (of which BTW I am in favor) must thread carefully so as not to step on the rest of the world’s sensitivities. We have had in Greece to vote some unpopular laws because the rest of the world demanded it, and I am not talking about financial laws. Scientific exploration is far less controversial: let’s go and discover without spoiling what we are searching for. Xenocide, to use Orson Scott Card’s term, is something the global public opinion is hostile to, especially in countries that have suffered genocide. Planetary protection is what is supposed to guard against xenocide and it is not simply US government policy.

      • Brett Bellmore January 29, 2019, 7:36

        I was a member of the L-5 society when we were (unsuccessfully) lobbying against the Outer Space Treaty. Thankfully we had more luck with the Moon Treaty.

        I suspect the Outer Space Treaty is slated for the chopping block as soon as space mining/colonization becomes a real thing. And good riddance.

        • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 29, 2019, 17:56

          I doubt we will see ever the Outer Space Treaty completely scrapped, no one wants to scrap a treaty that forbids pre-placement of nuclear weapons in orbit. Rather we will see it amended to allow space mining and set the legal requirements of space colonization. Even if the US refuses to ratify a treaty, this does not mean that the rest of the world will not go along, see for example the Kyoto protocol. There is even the example of the Law of Sea Treaty which the US Senate has not ratified but the US actually follows. Even if a treaty is rendered completely irrelevant, some elements somehow survive: As useless as the Kellogg Briand Pact proved in outlawing war, a large part of it has survived in the form of the UN charter. One caveat: I am not a lawyer.

          • Wojciech J February 5, 2019, 20:34

            Outer Space Treaty isn’t signed by everyone, you can create shell companies in these countries bypassing it.I think as a Greek you should be familiar with the similar practice used by merchant fleets sailing under banners of small countries.

            • Ioannis Kokkinidis February 6, 2019, 15:58

              I would walk down Pasalimani in my native Piraeus to see yachts with flags of convenience whenever I was bored at home. Considering how Electron Lab’s rockets need to get FAA approval despite getting launched in New Zealand, I am not sure how easy it would be to set a flag of convenience status. Flags of convenience in shipping exist because the global system tolerates them. Space faring countries could decide not to tolerate this kind of arrangement for space and treat any mined minerals as pirated goods. I would say that revising the OST is easier than bypassing it

  • Gary Wilson January 28, 2019, 14:09

    This has been a very worthwhile article, despite what could be construed as flaws. Paul and the blog have taken some criticism here but I think the article has provided a large amount of very useful information in addition to some opinions about the big drivers in space exploration. It has been difficult to see a man who has become an icon to many of us criticized but he is a human being with flaws and he is taking on an enormous burden in pushing technology advancement through several different but vital platforms. I wish we had more Elon Musks to revolutionize various industries. I think he will cause changes in thinking at both NASA and the large car manufacturers. Changes that have been needed for decades now. Thank you once again Dr. Kokkinidis and Paul for publishing this article.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 28, 2019, 19:15

      Themistocles was ambitious, arrogant, proud, vain, anxious for the recognition of his deeds, corrupt, a liar, cheat and manipulator and quite petty at times. He was though the man who won the Persian Wars. Superman and Captain America are comic book characters, not real people. Real people are complicated. Elon Musk is a person that I truly admire for his achievements. He is not though someone I would want to work for. He does not have some sort of magic wand that can solve everything and anything, he is a real person and at times he fails. We should treat everything he says as the word of God, he is human with all the flaws this means. This is what I have been trying to pass here.

      • SUMEET February 4, 2019, 18:58

        No, you are not. It seems that you have an axe to grind when it relates to SpaceX and Elon. Your comments are making it even worse by trying to justify your malice by quoting fallen greek heroes.

        Rest of the article was good but got tainted about your obvious bias against Elon. If anything we need more Elon’s and no one is saying he has a magic wand or he is a god. You are just trying to put your own words into it.

  • Gary Wilson January 28, 2019, 14:17

    I made my comments about the Space Shuttle primarily to hopefully engage people in a discussion of the routes taken by the primary space agency on Earth to advance manned space exploration. Dr. Kokkinidis is obviously correct saying that we have learned a lot about working in space as a dangerous environment from the ISS. It has not been a complete waste, nor was the Space Shuttle. However I would say that it has helped keep us in low earth orbit for an extraordinary length of time by taking the vast majority of the budget for manned space exploration (what was the total cost of the shuttle program and how far out did it extend humankinds’ reach)? The future leaders of NASA may well be reading this blog. I would want them to hear a message that we need to push outward physically as well as mentally now and in the future. We should promote and engage in a future that contains both manned and robotic exploration.

    • Alex Tolley January 29, 2019, 14:00

      That was an interesting perspective. However, have those thoughts lasted more than a generation? My children, both Millennials, have no interest in space. The Apollo moon landings mean nothing to them, as it was history and seems to have no bearing on their lives. This seemed to be the same for their friends AFAICS. They live in the Bay Area, so one might think that technology, human spaceflight, and the many robot missions we follow might be of interest.

      Kennedy may have believed that space achievements would show the superiority of the US system, but events since then have also shown how the US has failed and provided a poor example to the world. It should be clear there are risks in seeing such relationships. If China should start making real spaceflight achievements that surpass the US, should we then believe that their system is “superior” and follow their lead?

  • kph January 29, 2019, 10:06

    Too many read space related websites are tilted in favor of SX, a few billionaires, or suffer from nationalistic fervor. References to the liberal arts, reminders from history, international perspective, and critiques of this article are welcome.

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis January 29, 2019, 17:59

      Thank you for your nice words. I agree with your assessment of many articles on the web, and that was what I tried to avoid, though I am certain that I have also committed by own sins of bias

  • OhYeah January 30, 2019, 4:24

    I can appreciate the amount of time and energy that went into this article, but I don’t appreciate the tone and open hostility towards SpaceX and Musk.

    It all comes down to a very simple question. Do we want to become a space-faring civilization or not? If yes, the cost of getting into space (and staying there for extended periods of time) *must* come down. This what SpaceX – and other newcomers like Blue Origin – are trying to achieve. NASA and their manned mission programmes have done nothing of the sort. I would go so far as to say they have actively worked against it with the blessing of the United States Congress I might add. The whole SLS program is a stunning waste of taxpayer money with no concrete goals, almost no progress and I’m sad to say, probably also no future. No one is going to be paying 500+ million for a single launch in today’s economy.

  • ljk January 31, 2019, 13:47

    Would a decadal survey work for human space exploration?

    The decadal survey has become the primary way that the space science community sets research priorities and identifies missions to achieve them. Joseph K. Alexander discusses how the decadal survey works and whether it could be applied to human space exploration.

    Monday, January 28, 2019


  • ljk January 31, 2019, 13:59

    Blue’s big year ahead

    Blue Origin started off 2019 with another suborbital test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle. Jeff Foust reports on the company’s goal to start flying people later this year while breaking ground on a factory that will produce rocket engines for both itself and ULA.

    Monday, January 28, 2019


  • ljk January 31, 2019, 14:01

    Review: Interplanetary Robots

    The history of robotic missions to explore the planets is a subject as big as the solar system itself. Jeff Foust reviews a book that shrinks that history down to a single volume, including missions that failed to make it off the drawing boards.

    Monday, January 28, 2019


  • Greg L January 31, 2019, 23:39

    I am rooting for both government and commercial space ventures. Let the best systems win out in the end.

    I do feel compelled to comment that despite all the follies and setbacks, the United States space programs (government and commercial) are clearly superior to any other country. This is not blind patriotism on my part but established fact.

    Some examples:

    1. The robotic space missions of JPL and most recently Johns Hopkins APL. I trust I do not need to list the scores of examples. Alan Stern always rightfully reminds us in his press conferences that the historic achievements of New Horizons and many other deep space missions have only been possible because of the United States.

    2. Private ventures like SpaceX, Blue Origins, and Virgin Galactic. Only possible in a free, capitalistic society like the United States.

    3. The US Manned Space Program. Actually, Apollo did indeed demonstrate the superior way of life of the free world vs totalitarian dictatorships. The Space Shuttle was overhyped (what space project isn’t) and too expensive but it did give us a Mach 25 reuseable 7 person crew Spaceplane that could land on an airport runway with full rendezvous and in orbit repair capability in a payload bay (including an airlock) and a remote manipulator arm to boot. These are not trivial achievements. It also built the Space Station. The fact that the activities of Apollo and Shuttle were not sustainable in the long run does not mean they were useless. There is still nothing more capable than a Saturn 5 or a shuttle orbiter (or for that matter a Lunar Module) in existence today. I do hope something useful comes out of SLS (I am skeptical ) but if the BFR can do the job instead so be it. We’ll see.

    4. The great NASA observatories – Hubble, Compton, Chandra and Spitzer. I am very worried about James Webb telescope however. Very complex deployment and no option for in orbit repair. Yikes.

    I really don’t care about Elon Musk’s private life. All I care about that is that Musk has made some remarkable achievements to date (which frankly I never thought he could) so more power to him and I hope he can continue and doesn’t burn out. Same for Bezos and Branson. No guarantees, though. Aerospace and the free market are unsentimental.

    I’m also rooting for ESA and India and am impressed with their achievements to date.

    But please c’mon the Unites States remains the clear leader because our society is the most free. See Timothy Ferris’ “The Science of Liberty”. Hopefully we will not rest on our laurels. I recognize China’s achievements and view them with concern because they are a totalitarian dictatorship, plain as day. If we fall asleep, they could dominate the lunar environment.

    “We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.” – John F. Kennedy

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis February 1, 2019, 19:32

      If the US is the most free, then how come I am not allowed to sing and dance until the break of dawn like my great-grandfather, or his father, or his father’s father before him? Why do bars and clubs have to close at 2 am and I have to sleep so early, as if I was still in middle school? Why are teenagers not allowed to go to nightclubs, as they do in Europe, albeit not necessarily being allowed to drink? Coming in this country you receive a cultural shock in terms of what is legal and normal in you home country is actually illegal in the US. History in full of examples of unfree countries outcompeting and conquering freer ones. If there is a race in space, let’s see who can win it. For now the US is ahead, because its freer system allowed it to survive the shock of the 1960’s-1970’s, while the unfreer Soviet Union could not stand it and collapsed

  • Steve Bolton February 1, 2019, 10:22

    An excellent and informative article. Thank you.

  • Wojciech J February 5, 2019, 20:43

    You missed couple of intersting missions in preperation like the Psyche orbiter


    It is also worth pointing out that Chinese companies are inspired by Musk’s designs and ideas…



    We shall see what comes out of this, but China has certain advantages that might help it overcome hurdles Elon faces…

    • Ioannis Kokkinidis February 6, 2019, 15:53

      I did not miss Psyche, there is simply a limit to how much detail you can put in an already long article considering how many countries are preparing missions. I know that the Brazilians are also developing an asteroid mission called Aster, which will be their first planetary mission. I tried to give an emphasis on human space flight and to include critical commentary rather than just a listing of plans. I am excited about Psyche myself.

  • Etienne M February 9, 2019, 12:19

    Excellent article, thank you Ioannis, and let us remind our common three thousands years old European wisdom and history ! Encore merci et vive la Grèce millénaire !

  • Rum Tan February 18, 2019, 3:06

    Great post, Thanks, for sharing this information with us. This is the top news of the first month of 2019. Best of luck team.

  • ljk February 18, 2019, 17:00

    Seeking the future: the fragility of the patron

    Many of the best-known space startups have been created, and funded, by wealthy entrepreneurs. Roger Handberg discusses some of the limitations of this patron model that have already affected some of these companies.

    Monday, February 18, 2019


  • ljk February 18, 2019, 17:02

    Moon racing

    This year is shaping up to be the most active in lunar exploration in decades. Jeff Foust reports on how, at least partially in response to those other missions, NASA is looking to speed up its own plans.

    Monday, February 18, 2019


  • ljk February 20, 2019, 13:47

    Jason Davis • February 18, 2019

    What to expect when Beresheet launches to (and lands on) the Moon

    Launch day is almost here for Beresheet, a small lunar lander built by Israeli non-profit SpaceIL. Liftoff is currently set for 22 February at 01:45 UTC (21 February 20:45 EST), atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

    If all goes well, Beresheet will push free from the Falcon 9 about a half an hour after launch, kicking off a 40-day journey to lunar orbit followed by another week before it actually lands. Thanks to some extremely helpful email exchanges with Yoav Landsman, a SpaceIL senior systems engineer, I was able to put together this handy guide detailing Beresheet’s entire mission. Let’s get started!


  • ljk February 26, 2019, 14:43

    Humanity’s “Backup Disc” on Israel’s Lunar Craft Holds a Ton of Weird Info

    By Peter Hess on February 25, 2019

    The Israeli spacecraft Beresheet, set to be the first-ever non-government-owned moon lander, is carrying precious cultural cargo: a 30-million-page backup disc of humanity’s collective knowledge, including the contents of one very important website. Dubbed “The Lunar Library” by its creator, the Arch Mission Foundation, the solid-state nanotechnology storage device looks like a standard-sized DVD, much like one that might play the film Step Brothers. But instead of Step Brothers, it contains an exhaustive archive of science and culture.

    Full article here:


    To quote:

    The Lunar Library, which superficially resembles a standard 120-millimeter DVD, actually comprises 25 nickel discs, each of which is only 40 microns thick, stacked on top of each other. (A human hair is between 60 and 120 microns thick). Needless to say, AMF packed a ton of information onto the 100-gram — less than a quarter pound — disc:

    The first four layers contain more than 60,000 analog images of pages of books, photographs, illustrations, and documents — etched as 150 to 200 dpi, at increasing levels of magnification, by optical nanolithography.

    The first analog layer is the Front Cover and is visible to the naked eye. It contains 1500 pages of text and images, as well as holographic diffractive logos and text, and can be easily read with a 100X magnification optical microscope, or even a lower power magnifying glass.

    The next three analog layers each contain 20,000 images of pages of text and photos at 1000X magnification, and require a slightly more powerful microscope to read. Each letter on these layers is the size of a bacillus bacterium.

    Below the increasingly tiny images on the analog layers lie the digital layers, which contain about 200 gigabytes of data, compressed down to 100. And for any alien life-form fortunate — or unfortunate — enough to stumble upon The Lunar Library, the analog layers include the world’s longest homework assignment in the form of a “Primer,” which describes millions of concepts in multiple languages.

    The analog layers also include “a series of documents that teach the technical specifications, file formats, and scientific and engineering knowledge necessary to access, decode and understand, the digital information encoded in deeper layers of the Library.”

    What’s Really in the Lunar Library?

    Importantly, these deeper layers contain the entire contents of Wikipedia, as well as 25,000 books, ranging from fiction novels and non-fiction books to technical science and engineering textbooks.

    The AMF describes The Lunar Library as an attempt to preserve human knowledge in the event of catastrophe, as well as a way to possibly communicate with aliens who come across it. And while the Library is ostensibly a comprehensive accounting of human history and knowledge, it admittedly comes from a particular perspective:

    Also in the analog layers, are several private archives, including an Israeli time-capsule for SpaceIL, containing the culture and history of Israel, songs, and drawings by children.

    The Lunar Library isn’t AMF’s first shot at sharing human knowledge with our neighbors. A small version of the archive flew aboard the Tesla Roadster that SpaceX launched aboard a Falcon heavy rocket in 2018, and it’s presumably going to remain there until the rocket is salvaged for parts by aliens. In the case of The Lunar Library, though, the disc will just sit in one place until someone picks it up and pops it into a computer. And while it doesn’t contain any MP4 files, at least some hapless alien will be able to read the Wikipedia synopsis page for Step Brothers.

  • ljk February 27, 2019, 10:18

    Thirty-million-page backup of humanity headed to moon aboard Israeli lander

    If the apocalypse strikes, the Arch Mission Foundation wants to be sure all the knowledge we’ve accumulated doesn’t disappear.

    by Eric Mack

    February 24, 2019 9:45 AM PST

    On Thursday night, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried an Israeli-made spacecraft named Beresheet beyond the grasp of Earth’s gravity and sent it on its way to the surface of the moon. On board Beresheet is a specially designed disc encoded with a 30-million-page archive of human civilization built to last billions of years into the future.

    The backup for humanity has been dubbed “The Lunar Library” by its creator, the Arch Mission Foundation (AMF).

    “The idea is to place enough backups in enough places around the solar system, on an ongoing basis, that our precious knowledge and biological heritage can never be lost,” the nonprofit’s co-founder Nova Spivack told me via email.

    The AMF also placed a small test archive on Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster that was launched in the direction of Mars aboard the first Falcon Heavy demonstration mission last year. That archive consisted of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy encoded in a disc made of quartz silica glass made to last millions of years as the Roadster orbits the sun. The AMF has also placed a solid-state copy of Wikipedia on board a cubesat from SpaceChain in low-Earth orbit.

    Full article here:


    So glad to see not only someone thinking ahead in this area but actually doing something about it as well!

  • ljk March 5, 2019, 11:44

    The Moonrush has begun

    Last month, SpaceIL’s Beresheet lunar lander launched, and is making its way to the Moon for a landing attempt in April. Gerald Black argues this is the beginning of a new commercial rush to the Moon where, like the gold rushes of the 19th century, suppliers could cash in as well.

    Monday, March 4, 2019


  • ljk March 5, 2019, 11:48

    Commercial crew’s time approaches

    A SpaceX Falcon took off in the middle of the night this weekend, sending a Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station on a test flight to verify the vehicle is ready to carry astronauts. Jeff Foust reports on the status of the mission and what remains to be done before that spacecraft carries people into orbit.

    Monday, March 4, 2019


  • ljk March 8, 2019, 10:34

    Andrew Jones • March 6, 2019

    Yutu-2 Rocks On into Lunar Day 3 for Chang’e-4 mission

    China’s Yutu-2 rover is continuing to make tracks on the lunar far side and has returned new images of rocks in its path inside Von Kármán crater, while the lander and rover continue with their science objectives.

    Yutu-2 awakened for lunar day 3 of the mission at 02:51 UTC on 28 February, with the lander following later the same day at 23:52. A few days later, the rover stood down for its ‘noon nap’ to avoid heating issues from a high solar incidence angle, at 10:25 UTC on March 3. It will resume its activities early on 10 March, before entering a sleep state around 02:00 UTC on 13 March, when the Sun is low in the sky over Von Kármán crater in preparation for the lunar nighttime.

    According to a release by the China Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) on 4 March, Yutu-2 has so far travelled 127 meters, adding 7 meters to the total of 120 meters driven on lunar days 1 (44.185 m) and 2 (75.815 m).

    The apparent relatively low distance is believed to be due to Yutu-2 taking time to image nearby rocks and features in the regolith. Analysis of the images from the Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS) and Panoramic camera is expected to provide insight into the origin and composition of the rocks and development of the lunar far side itself.

    Full article and new images here:


  • ljk March 12, 2019, 9:35

    Red Moon revisited

    The successful landing of the Chang’e-4 spacecraft on the lunar farside in January has triggered another round of speculation about China’s lunar exploration plans and a race with the United States. Dwayne Day argues that many Western observers see what they want to see in China’s space program and not what is really going on.

    Monday, March 11, 2019