Monday, September 23, 2013

Vandenberg Spaceport

I'm baaaaack!

Yes, the hiatus has been far too long - I kept thinking 'just another day or two,' after a move, working on Catherine of Lyonesse, an annoying and voltage-draining sinus infection, and, well, work.

The move means a regretful farewell to the F line streetcars, 100,000-ton containerships, and more places to eat than we could ever possibly try. On the other hand, the Central Coast does have a justified reputation as a corner of paradise.

Of more interest to most readers here, the move puts me back within decent viewing distance of launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Alas, relentless California coastal summer fog rendered the late-August launch of a Delta IV Heavy invisible. As the seasons turn, bringing Indian summer to the coast, I have better hopes for the upcoming Falcon 9 launch, postponed from midmonth and now scheduled for September 29th.

For those who live near the West Coast, or simply want to keep track of launch schedules, here is a Web page listing scheduled Vandenberg launches.

This launch schedule also provides some important - and frustrating - lessons about the practicalities of space flight.

The most important of these lessons is that space launches are rare. Not counting ICBM test flights (one pending, and one I slept through and missed a couple of nights ago), three launches are scheduled between now and March. Throw in the late-August Delta IV launch and it comes to four launches over an eight-month period.

This is surely not an 'efficient' usage of facilities and resources. A space launch center must be broadly comparable to a large airport. The vehicles it handles are about the same size as jetliners, and at least as demanding. They must be prepped, serviced, and sent on their way, using a lot of specialized equipment, and - even more expensive - teams of human expertise.

If a major airport handled one flight every other month ... airline tickets would not be cheap.

In fairness, Vandenberg is not the most heavily used launch center. It is used for polar-orbit launches, particularly for spy satellites, though also for some types of geosats for which maximum coverage of the Earth's surface is important. Polar-orbit launches cannot benefit significantly from Earth's rotation, so they are avoided unless specifically called for.

But sometimes they are called for, meaning that all traffic cannot be consolidated to a single launch site. Worldwide there have been rather less than 100 launches in each of the last few years -74 in 2010, 84 in 2011, 78 last year, and 52 so far this year.

This includes a handful of failures each year; out of 286 attempts this decade, 18 were failures, a 6 percent failure rate. This is, I believe, a somewhat higher failure rate than in the last couple of decades - at least in part, I'd guess, because of more new and inexperienced players in the game.

But any way you cut it, space launches are not an everyday event - more like one or two per week, worldwide.

The problem of low traffic volume does not just drive up the cost of launching rockets. Production of any one given type is only a dozen or so per year - up to 19, in 2011 for the Russian workhorse Soyuz (R-7) and China's Chang Zheng. Individual Western booster types rarely see more than half a dozen launches per year. Forget production-line efficiencies.

This traffic volume also puts paid to reusable launch vehicles. Quite apart from technical challenges, there just isn't the traffic to keep them busy. (And since payloads vary widely, you'd really need a stable of types, just as with expendables.)

In fact, given the traffic level, a stable of expendables is the most cost-effective approach. For any given individual payload they are far less expensive than a reusable vehicle that has to not only get the payload up, but then get itself back down.

Yes, this is a dead horse I have beaten here many times before, and will no doubt beat again. But actually living where I can watch space launches brings some immediacy to the topic.

On the bright side, we are sending some 80-odd missions a year into orbit and beyond. More than that, in fact, since many launches carry multiple satellites. As also noted here before, we have sent missions to every major planet in the Solar System, and a good many other objects.

And I am looking forward to Sunday morning, when that Falcon 9 is scheduled to go up. With a little bit of luck the sky will be clear.


The image, via Flickr, shows a Delta IV Medium launch from Vandenberg, last year.


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Thucydides said...

The big issue with Sea Dragon was it was too big. There was not then, and is not now, any funded mission that needs 550 tons lifted to LEO all at once.

As for pressure fed BDB's, there was a rash of proposals near the end of the Apollo era, but since the customer wanted "Space Shuttles", the research was dropped and resources diverted towards the wishes of the customer.

As a BTW, the HYDRA test program launched rockets in exactly this fashion with little difficulty, and the Aquarius proposal for a small dumb booster (one ton to LEO) utilized this idea as well.

Byron said...

Being that the launch cradle would be the only thing permanently exposed to seawater I don't think corrosivity would have been the issue.
If there's one thing I learned from materials class, it's that corrosion is always an issue. Trying to handle a rocket that big at sea would be a serious pain.

Sea Launch uses specialized ship which probably incorporates some fairly advanced stabilization stuff. Also, they don't dip their rocket in seawater before launch.

Tommy Lee:
I'm pretty sure I know what is going on here. A bunch of guys with liberal arts degrees discussing technology they know nothing about. Why this page keeps getting linked into actual conversations is the big mystery. lol. Carry on. If you want to know what is 'going on' then I suggest you start here. All I see here is rabid technological theism without even a glimpse of how things might progress, and a complete disregard for real problems. I'm always optimistic when clicking on such links, but rarely impressed. I am not impressed.
You have no clue what degrees the participants here have. Strictly speaking, I don't have one yet, but I'm 5 semesters into a BS of aerospace engineering. Going from your website, that's equal to or better than what you have. Show some respect, and don't pretend to be an 'expert' and link us to your website. Particularly because real experts use numbers, which seem to be lacking.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

I'm pretty sure 'reality' doesn't have anything to do with your 'credentials'. That, I believe, is called argument from authority. I'm commenting on the article mostly, the ramblings of a bunch of uniformed amateurs doesn't impress me. Look at the facts, the only vehicles that will matter in the very near future will be reusable launch vehicles using deeply cryogenic methane or hydrogen upper stages with turbine fed engines, vis a vis, Musk and Bezos. The rest will go the way of the dinosaurs. You need to get on board with vastly reduced launch costs because it is definitely going to happen in the very near future. The rest of what you are discussing is nonsense. Show me your rocket, I gave you a link to mine, or one of them at least, and even that one is already obsolete. The fundamental premise presented by this article is that expendables will be adequate and that a limited market of telecommunications satellites, defense department reconnaissance satellites and science missions will be the only near term market is complete nonsense and only illuminates how far out of touch with reality you guys really are.

Byron said...

Tommy Lee:
I'm pretty sure 'reality' doesn't have anything to do with your 'credentials'.
Is this weasel words for 'you're a liar'? If it is, I'm unimpressed. What liar is going to claim to be a student instead of someone with a degree? I'm calling your bluff here, and will verify as far as possible that I am who I say I am, if you're willing to cooperate.

I'm commenting on the article mostly, the ramblings of a bunch of uniformed amateurs doesn't impress me.
Not my problem. Coming here and calling us all idiots was your choice, not mine.

Look at the facts, the only vehicles that will matter in the very near future will be reusable launch vehicles using deeply cryogenic methane or hydrogen upper stages with turbine fed engines, vis a vis, Musk and Bezos.
Musk is using RP-1, not hydrogen. Also, what 'facts' are these? Your ramblings? I don't see any tradeoff numbers there.

You need to get on board with vastly reduced launch costs because it is definitely going to happen in the very near future.
I have nothing against the idea of reduced launch costs, but my being 'on board' is not going to alter their existence in the slightest. Also, this is a prediction that has been made every few years since about 1970. Why is this time any different?

Show me your rocket, I gave you a link to mine, or one of them at least, and even that one is already obsolete.
No, you're the one with a case to prove. You can't make references to a (badly-formatted) website, and go on about 'facts' and then berate us for not falling in line.

The fundamental premise presented by this article is that expendables will be adequate and that a limited market of telecommunications satellites, defense department reconnaissance satellites and science missions will be the only near term market is complete nonsense and only illuminates how far out of touch with reality you guys really are.
Right. So what market will be appearing in the near term?

Anonymous said...

Tommy Lee Elifritz, you are a very well spoken troll, but troll you are nonetheless. Perhaps you should actually read a few posts and their asosciated comments before inflicting us with your uninformed opinions of our education and intelligence.


Anonymous said...

Well, I fat fingered that comment...should have been 'associated' and not 'asosciated'...rather detracts from the message.


Cordwainer said...

Okay, Tommy Lee I looked at your link all the papers cited had your name on them and were written like they were put together by a third-grader. If your going to troll, troll harder. At least add some footnotes and citations to your work.

Well I agree dipping your rocket in salt-water isn't a good idea. Probably drive the greens nuts and would probably require some engineering "fix" to guarantee proper ignition.
Of course there are plenty of other ways to launch a BDB that would probably be better I was just making the point that it would be feasible.

Thucydides is right there just not that much need for that large of a launch platform. It would be nice to have though since it would open up some cool possibilities for manned deep space missions. Perhaps something like OTRAG or SLS where you have a family of modular or semi-modular boosters built on pressure fed technology that could be scaled up to BDB size might work to get some larger payloads in the pipeline.

Cordwainer said...

As to market need there isn't a whole lot of reason for large payloads, but for scientific and engineering research needs there are at least a few I can think of. Space telescopes, larger space station habitat modules for certain experiments, beamed power experiments and deep space propulsion systems development for instance.

Katzen said...

been awhile since I posted, but I have been reading this a bit. I find lots of good avenues of research from this and atomic rockets.
I started playing around with a rocketpunk story I'm writing and looked into types of engines and systems that are close enough to today to be considered "possible".
I used Bigelow Ba2100 modules and solar moth type engines with a ISP of 1300s.
I rationalized that if you made the "combustion chamber" reflective you could heat the hydrogen up way past the material melting point by having the sunlight bounce around inside. tell me if you think this won't work because I like seeing my ideas ripped to shreds. gives me ideas for the next iteration.

Now I keep seeing lack of demand as a reason that there are not more space launches.
I keep thinking of a chicken and egg market analogy. No one buying eggs because the chickens are so expensive and no one raising chickens because the eggs are so expensive. Not perfect but I never strive for perfection.

What might be useful is if there was a glut of launch capability. By buying launch services at a loss money making schemes might be able to get through that previously were too risky. It could take one new "killer app" something like a large bandwidth satellite or planetary resources confirming a asteroid that has a rare metals seam worth exploiting at a huge profit.
Investor rush and downward spiral of launch costs due to both economies of scale and a new launch equilibrium found.

Actually speaking of economies of scale.... So again with spacex but just bringing up a point but they have 14 planned launches using pretty much the same hardware on each. That means 16 (one launch is the falcon heavy demo) first stage cores and 144 Merlin engines. The engines at least could start using economies of scale to bring their cost down and they might already are doing just that.

They make this year without a launch failure... the rocketpunk future looks a little more possible between being proven flight hardware with a squeaky clean track record and it's connection to NASA it could push through each launch through the regulatory and insurance costs hurdles a lot more cheaply.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Musk is using RP-1, not hydrogen

He is now. I guess you missed the fact that he has publicly stated his immediate goal is a staged combustion methane engine and he has convinced NASA and the State of Mississipi to put a million plus into the test stand at Stennis to test his turbopump. You aren't even up to date. I guess you also missed the fact that he intends to attempt return to the launch site on his next CRS mission - in February! Any claim that expendables are sufficient for the kind of launch rates and volumes he and others (like myself) envision in the very near future is just plain laughable and quite honestly - delusional.

So what market will be appearing in the near term?

After he burns through his manifest in a couple of years? Space tourism you idiot. Bezos has built a full on tap-off cycle cryogenic hydrogen engine with 250 million dollars of his own money in 3 years flat. They'll be 3D printing parts if they aren't already. Nine engines is a million pounds of thrust, with a 100K cryogenic upper stage deep throttleable to 30 percent, that is easily a reusable EELV equivalent. You guys are not only misinformed, you are obsolete.

At least add some footnotes and citations to your work.

Most of them are original essays describing original research. I know how that must be alien to you.

Katzen said...

Thomas Lee Elifritz
I would like to show you the door. I really don't care about your credentials or beliefs on this subject, however you are not showing anyone respect and discussion, not argument is the goal of this site.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

I'm not here waving my credentials or beliefs around like, I'm here criticizing a blog post claiming that expendables are cheaper than reusables, as well as a bunch of guys discussing atomic rockets as 'the next big thing', using mywritten essays, research proposals, research results and decades of experience in the nascent commercial launch and payload industry as the basis of my arguments. In addition to some salient data points. I'm happy to leave you to your delusions. Good luck with your 'electronics is just a fad' meme. lol.

Geoffrey S H said...

Mr Elifritz, if you want to be argumentative and rude without discussing, then you will get the same reception here as you have on the site cited below that I have just found. The people here are intelligent and happy to listen to well constructed ideas. Call them idiots and you only show your own lack of courtesy. Goodbye.

Thucydides said...

Sea launching has been demonstrated multiple times during the HYDRA test sequences, so there is no real issues to speak of there. If the launchers are expendable, then corrosion isn't going to be an issue either, it gets dunked into the ocean once, then the stages either disintegrate downrange or plunge into the ocean and sink after expending its fuel and separating.

(trying to insert a link to an article on the Space Review, but won't accept for some reason. Ocean-based launch: extending a successful approach to new applications

by Andrew E. Turner
Monday, February 12, 2007)

Since the general forecast is for a relatively limited number of launches per year, would be space titans of industry are caught on the horns of a dilemma. Do you spend large resources for a small slice of the pie (i.e. building things like BDB's or even SBD's like Aquarius for the potential to bid on 20 or so launches per year), or do you go for a general purpose launcher that is probably overbuilt for most applications, but allows you to bid on 80 launches per year (including the very demanding ones)?

Katzen, the one thing I can think of to create a "glut" of launch capability on the market would be the release of large numbers of military boosters to the open market. This might be analogous to the end of WWII, when lots of war surplus transports were available (along with engines, aircrew and infrastructure). Perhaps something that makes current ICBM boosters obsolete, like reliable hypersonic cruise missiles or some sort of ABM defense which makes missile attacks too difficult or unreliable to count on (remember, even in the 80's, serious people studying the problem realized that ABM defense could have very low pK numbers, since the enemy could never know which missiles were going to be shot down, therefore would not know which targets would be hit. Even with ridiculously low kill probabilities, an enemy would have to double the number of attacking missiles to guarantee the target was destroyed). Plan "B" might be that 3D printing technologies coupled to "BDB" like technology (to make the printing as simple as possible) lowers production costs and overhead to the point that making reliable rockets is cheap and easy.

Anonymous said...

Well, increasing the launch rate to drive down costs, to allow more payload customers certanly turns the whole argument on its would take a massive amount of cooperation and initial loss, but it might work...but many might balk at the potential losses, or even financial ruin. I think that it would be extremely difficult to get more than a handful of companies to sign on...and even more difficult to get governmets to play along! But it does have a plausible chance of succeeding, if it were tried. The problem, of course, is that it has such a small probability of being tried! Such a shame...


Thucydides said...


Reflective absorption chambers for your Solar Moth are not going to help much with the heat issue. Since nothing is 100% reflective, the chamber will be absorbing heat regardless.

Even trying to "pulse" the chamber (heat a bit, let it cool down, repeat) will not only kill your ISP, but thermal cycling will create lots of issues as well.

I keep thinking of something like the proposed open cycle gas core nuclear rockets so popular back in the 60's might help. The absorption material is held in a vortex (perhaps by a magnetic field) while the hydrogen remass spins around it picking up heat and keeping the system cool. Since your absorption material is a gas or perhaps a liquid, it can pick up much more heat than a solid mass and radiate it back at a longer wavelength to the H2.

Just a thought.

Katzen said...


I was actually thinking of having the sunlight bounce around in the chamber heating up the hydrogen more by radiation rather than convection. I would probably pump water around the engine and use the steam in a turbine, and then to the radiators....

I also wonder if ablation as a fuel source might work...

I like the solar engine because is stupid simple and incredibly light. I'm hoping it could be improved to provide 1300s ISP.

Tony said...


"Well, increasing the launch rate to drive down costs, to allow more payload customers certanly turns the whole argument on its would take a massive amount of cooperation and initial loss, but it might work...but many might balk at the potential losses, or even financial ruin. I think that it would be extremely difficult to get more than a handful of companies to sign on...and even more difficult to get governmets to play along! But it does have a plausible chance of succeeding, if it were tried. The problem, of course, is that it has such a small probability of being tried! Such a shame..."

Nothing personal, Ferrell -- you just happened to be the one to walk into this -- but why in the effing hell do people keep flogging this dead horse!? Launch costs don't affect how much it costs to operate in space. And that is tres expensive. I know a lot of people think that quantity mean less of a demand for quality. But it really doesn't -- not if you're talking about people. There's a minimum cost to space systems capable of supporting human life. Even robotic systems require a minimum of reliability and durability, under conditions of very demanding environmental extremes. More pounds per launch services dollar might motivate increased churning of on-orbit capabilities, but the cost of all of the churns would probably add up to the cost of current, longer-duration systems.

Then there's the problem that increased crap on-orbit would cause. Once again, I know that people think that decreased launch costs could lead to increased orbital sanitation efforts. But the real problem is large artifacts that targeted sanitation might reasonably affect, but tens of thousands of small to very small pieces of debris that could never be economically be eliminated. And each launch would add more of this kind of stuff.

Finally, of course, at any price, one has to actually have a reason to be in space. But there just aren't that many reasons to be in space for people that can afford it, even at significantly reduced launch service costs. Colonizing people out into space for the simple purpose of doing so just doesn't make sense. Robotic space activities are likewise pretty limited.

And resource exploitation...ya just gotta take this one by itself, it's so stupid. Yeah, a single asteroid of the right composition contains a decade's or even a century's worth of whatever, at current market prices. The problem is that just as soon as a decade or century's worth of whatever is immediately available in Earth orbit, the market for whatever goes into spiraling deflation and collapses, due to oversupply, and the asteroid miners go bankrupt. Or, if you can only manage to extract and deliver a year's worth of whatever per year, you probably can't compete with terrestrial suppliers, and go bankrupt that way. Asteroid mining is an intellectual parlor trick without a real business plan that would ever work.

Katzen said...

(grabs a cricket bat)
I really hate to beat this proverbial dead horse again, but I'm a little ignorant on this subject. Takes this post as a question rather than criticism.
I thought that launch costs were THE reason for how expensive getting anything into space is.
First you have the engines, fuel tanks, eletronics and overall structure that are made so light and with such tight tolerances that it's a insanely expensive to build, and then are thrown away after use.
Because of how expensive and how large a production it is to launch anything you have a huge operations cost in checking, rechecking, tests, a entire specialized staff for infrequent launch which have to cover the cost of this massive overhead.

Because each launch is so expensive the sat, probe, manned launch vehicle especially also have to be built to extremely tight tolerances and have redundant systems which makes the vehicle itself extraordinarily expensive. Which boosts the whole vehicle out of reach except in profitable sats or governments that can piss literally billions of dollars on science or technology.
That bucket can be worth it's weight in phosphorus but it's not something everyone can do.

We haven't even considered the failure rate. Which is harder than I thought to find but it seems to be anywhere 3-7% depending on how it's calculated. a 3% chance of a failing launch with the kind of money is very expensive to insure. Not only that it takes so long to launch a "replacement" that the lost revenue is also a major factor. Creating a high stakes all or nothing bet. That is unattractive to all but subsidized and deep pocketed companies.

if you can decrease the cost, failure rate or speed up the turnaround time you reduce cost. Do all three at once and you can bring costs down by a order of magnitude.
(whack) okay I took a swing. please feel free to rip this to shreds. that will give me info on what to look into.

Byron said...

I'm sort of in the middle on this one. On one hand, I think Tony underestimates how much high launch costs drive up other costs. Spending money on tiny weight savings makes sense when it allows you to use a much cheaper booster.
However, operations in space are hard, and they always will be. Spaceflight is never going to be like air travel, and hardware costs are going to scale much more slowly than launch costs. I'm not going to estimate numbers on this, because I simply don't have the data necessary to do so.
On the gripping hand, most of what goes into space today is the result of very limited production runs, and is stuffed with high-end electronics, so we would expect it to cost more than an 'aircraft-equivalent' space system. How much of the cost of a communications satellite is the communications and how much is the satellite? (I don't know the answer to this one, either. That might be a good thing to look up.)

Katzen said...

Why does it have to be one extreme or another? I have no illusions that we will ever get to "airplane costs". I think more in terms of how Hienlien put it which was about 30$ in 1950's (250 dollars today) per pound to orbit, and I would actually bump that up to 500$ per pound or 1 grand per human pound.
That would be still prohibitively expensive and sending anyone up would be a multiyear contract to recoup costs. It would most definitely not be a joyride to anyone but the richest.

Now I want to throw a bone out there. At those costs it becomes profitable and advisable to to send people. A larger more complex sat is going to need maintenance if it wants to exist more than a few years.

I actually want to point to this and this

I will summarize what I want to illustrate here. XM satellite makes a lot of money off it's satellites( CAPTIAN OBVIOUS STRIKES AGAIN!). It launched XM-1, and XM-2 which had a solar panel flaw which could cause them to fog and degrade.
if the company could just replace or clean out the solar panels they wouldn't have to worry about said sat loosing it's large investment.

if we want to make even more money or larger more complex devices in space we will need humans not to be brave explorers but to be the grease monkey who can fix problems so whatever you have in space doesn't stop working and your investment stops bringing in a ROI before it's paid for.

I throw that out there for ranting sake.

Byron said...

Why does it have to be one extreme or another?
It doesn't. The question is which end various people are coming from.

if we want to make even more money or larger more complex devices in space we will need humans not to be brave explorers but to be the grease monkey who can fix problems so whatever you have in space doesn't stop working and your investment stops bringing in a ROI before it's paid for.
This is more true than you know. Going for manned (or even unmanned) on-orbit servicing instead of replacement has significant financial benefits. Basically, the replacements would have to be bought at the beginning, while servicing missions can be bought as needed. This means that if we plan for a 30-year mission and a lifetime of 10 years (3 satellites), then get 15 years, we would waste the money spent on the third satellite (saving only the cost of the booster) while a service mission could be totally cancelled.

Katzen said...

I agree with you about the need for a mechanic but not quite the reason.

I will support my perspective saying that if each part has a average failure rate of 99.99% in a large satellite that lets say it's shifting numbers of the worldwide stock market.
Without needing to go through large switching stations around the world the high speed traders can use global strategies that use the now faster information to beat it's competitors.

Now this large satellite needs high speed optical switches (thinking of laser communication, line of sites pretty easy in orbit), and fast computation which would include things like SSD drives and the fastest CPUs intel and AMD can offer.

Radiation hardening isn't going to be enough. Those servers and switches are going to need constant monitoring and redundancy to make sure they run smoothly with the right numbers. Three or four shifts of maintainers personal keep a system that moves literally trillions of dollars would be worth the money to keep staffed such a system.
Story idea of mine.

All this

Byron said...

That's not terribly likely. The biggest problem is light lag. I'm pretty sure you could get better performance a lot cheaper on Earth. And then there's the fact that a good engineer would include more radiation shielding, make everything redundant, and have one shift of maintainers.
Actually, there's a farther problem. I think the spares would be damaged at approximately the same rate as the active systems. (IIRC, some of the effects are worse on powered systems, but most are physical and would affect both). You'll need constant spares flights.
And I hate to break it to you, but it's not terribly original, either. Clarke wrote several similar stories. Replace 'computer switching system' with 'vacuum tubes'.

Thucydides said...

I'm going back a bit to Katzen's idea of ablative rockets. This was actually the initial idea for laser powered rockets to orbit in the mid 1970's, and the last time I saw this was the book "The Millennial Project", where the laser vapourized a block of ice attached to the end of the spacecraft.

While pretty simple and straightforward from the rocket building side, you have to remember your ISP is going to be limited by the molecular weight of the exhaust. Since having a block of solid hydrogen is somewhat difficult right now, a block of ice is probably the most practical engineering solution (and if you are looking at high stress, the block of ice might have threads embedded to make a reinforced composite structure, so you have some extra material with a higher MW in the mix). This limits you to about the 400 second range for ISP (even using solar mirrors to heat the ice). A laser might get around that by dumping really vast amounts of energy and dissociating the exhaust into individual molecules of H2 and O2 and bits of carbon from the composite net, but then you have all the issues of a honking huge laser...

Getting 800 using a Solar Moth and liquid hydrogen remass is probably doable today, and you may well be able to get to 1200 with some clever engineering (NERVA was projected to deliver 800 from the get go, and more advanced reactors promised to go to 1000 to 1200, so temperature wise, this is doable). Solar Moth is probably more efficient than NERVA pound for pound, since you don't have a heavy reactor and shielding, but I doubt you could scale to the high thrust levels of advanced NERVA's, simply because the area that could be heated is much smaller than the internal area of the nuclear reactor's cooling channels.

Katzen said...

(boom, idea implodes then explodes)
Bryon I will agree with you on your idea of sending a maintenance teams up for orbital repairs rather than on call. Thank you for that bit of thought.
I will still say that for anything in lunar or beyond it would still be more useful to have on call maintenance rather than send a repair team. That however is a completely different market.

I actually have to disagree with you on the resource exploitation. It might be much, much more expensive to get at the start, but it's not without some serious advantages that can be leveraged.

First there would be no land or regulatory hurdles in disposal of unused material which can simply be thrown away.

Second The actual equipment is small and light for mining. No need to fight gravity. I think something between a wood chipper and a plow.

Third I think you underestimate how creative investors can get when they see change. I suspect that the markets won't collapse, or if the do will bounce back very quickly. A good deal of these metals have very important industrial value. They might be snatched up as "strategic resources", or offer some kind of "long term futures"

The lower cost of said metals would be allow uses that were previously way too expensive.
Think something like platinum anti-corrosive paints to replace the Barium, ketone and esters that are in that nice shade of puke yellow I know so well.
(After reading the back of one of those paint cans I refused to paint without gloves or spray without a mask. Heavy metal toxicity just doesn't sound like fun, unless it's a rock band name)

I will be honest I was thinking of a solid ablation like carbon it takes a lot more heat before disassociating. doesn't ice sublime in vacuum?

as always please rip any of my ideas to shreds if they don't pass your bull test.

Thucydides said...


I am more with Tony WRT resource exploitation in the here and now. The level of investment and resources needed to get an asteroid and bring it to Earth orbit would be quite disproportionate to the expected ROI (even if you found an asteroid made of Platinum). Quite frankly, the market for extraterrestrial resources is extraterrestrial consumers, but until you have a reasonably large and active population in space, there is no market. This is a chicken and egg problem which has been hashed over many different times on this blog...

I also disagree that metals are the prime product for extraterrestrial markets, people, plants and animals need water and carbon and nitrogen. The slag makes good radiation shielding, and of course there is a market for metals (aluminum for lightsails, for example), but probably not as much as we might expect.

I have had this argument with Tony in the past, but I believe that there will be far less need for "stuff" in space, spheres of thin metal foil provide storage space, thin screens can be solar sails or solar mirrors (you enclose your small asteroid in a foil bag, then heat it with a huge mirror to boil off the desired elements), and of course large mirrors can also be used to generate energy by focusing sunlight on photovoltaic cells or steam generators.

Ice does sublime in a vacuum, but there are plenty of engineering tricks I can think of to get around this. At the simplest, the ice is dispensed from a "Pez dispenser" like device into the focus of the solar mirrors (or laser beam). If we forego ablation, the water can be pumped into a balloon and the balloon put into the focus when you need to raise some steam for thrust.

Katzen said...

I am not going to disagree with you because I think your wrong. I really need more info on asteroid mining as a economic idea. There is a bit of funding for it but right now I have to spin up a spare time project just on the research. So I'm shelving it for the moment and saying it's not economically feasible for any story I come up with.

Now that brings the thought of what would make sense as a reason to go to space.

Well why do we go to space now and why do we continue to work on it? It's been mentioned on here and I want to say it because it turns my rationalities on it's head.

I need to stop rationalizing it.

We built the international space station and the news reports on anytime it has a serious problem. it cost over a hundred billion.

The space shuttle was another one of these dreams that was made into reality.... sort of....

the X-33, the DC-X, Orion, the Roton, NERVA, and many dozens more vehicles we tried to build to make the space dream possible. Hell we talk about that dream.

maybe I'm wearing my captain obvious cape here. Sell the dream of space travel might just be the best resource that is in space right now.
Think about the hundreds of movies, books, games, merchandise, space camp, museums in the cape, and James Cameron spending millions just to retrieve a Saturn V booster.

The money made by one crew exploring the moon and NEOs both directly and indirectly. taking samples, writing about their life on board a interplanetary vehicle. Create stories about their adventures on other planets. a little enhanced truth would go a long way.
from models and pictures to full blow up posters and books about such a expedition could be budgeted for about 5 billion and still make a good profit?

That rant was thought up on the fly, but it garners a bit of thought now.

Anonymous said...

Katzen, isn't Mars One suppose to fund their colony by fliming a reality show about the colony? A reality show, (filmed on location), about an expidition to another planet would probaby make a a small fortune...unless the viewers got as bored with space travel as the travellers...


Anonymous said...

The orbital launch total for 2013 was 81 launches, including 3 failures.

Two of the failures reached orbit, but the payloads did not achieve the correct orbits. The other failure was the spectacular crash of a Proton M when it lost control seconds after launch (go to YouTube and search 'proton m crash').

Only 12 launches were to support the ISS (13 if you count the Antares test flight).

There were five manned missions. Four Russian Soyuz flights to the ISS and a Chinese Shenzhou flight to their space station, Tiangong-1.


Geoffrey S H said...

I don't want to sound like an uninformed pessimist, but it really does seem as if the debate on how to plausibly increase space access is becoming a bit sterile. Not the creativity of the ideas, but the same old [correct] reasons why it won't happen. That isn't a bad thing however- its good to become more informed with this debate and I for one am glad it has been happening for the past few years here.

There was nevertheless a lot more focus some time ago on how some settings could be more realistic, but without trying to justify every aspect of the said settling, as that would cancel it out. One post on gas-giant colonies comes to mind (jet propelled bi-planes?).

Maybe we should just accept that almost every attempt to increase space access to the level we want will not work now (and for a long time) because of the same reasons, and focus on settings with some acceptable handwaves but otherwise reasonably plausible ideas. It is good to be informed, but the feeling of having a more authentic setting than star trek and mass effect (visually for the latter at least) is also satisfying. I saw the 50th anniversary Dr Who episode last night and it would be wonderful to have something with a dollop more accuracy and authenticity when it came to space but that was just as entertaining.

Just a thought.

Thucydides said...

There is a National Geographic special called "Evacuate Earth" which provides a semi plausible McGuffin to energize space access in a very big way:

Of course this kind of jumps over the Rocketpunk future of colonizing the Solar System etc.

If the threat of asteroids and comets impacting the Earth was to become much higher in the public mind, perhaps a sort of Space Guard would be funded, with some manned outposts on the Moon to maintain and monitor the telescopes and a few orbiting depots for the interceptors to get things started.

Katzen said...

I’m actually throwing out ideas and seeing if anything has plausibility or even feasibility. I like discussing this here because if I even try to talk about it at work and people look at me like I’m speaking Swahili. To most people I can get the idea across pretty well that “space ships are not boats and should not be laid out as such”, but that’s about it.

So to everyone outside of the internet I keep my musing to myself though sometimes I talk to my wife about them, but she doesn’t understands it either, but listens to me all the same.
But as for plausible Mccgruffinite? Well on the demand side there is this article from NBF
Compact antimatter rockets and energy sources? Well yes that would be exploited if for the only reason of the MAD policy that kept the world from being blown up by politicians.
Others I can think of is using a m to be made in hard vacuum and zero agnetic scoop to mine for antimatter in space. Superconducting metamaterials that need zero gravity to work. A country creating the economic equivalent of a nuclear bomb from collapsing metal prices. A cure for cancer that requires large protein crystals free from defects. A asteroid demolishing a major city.
We haven’t hit the supply side. Focus fusion, A reusable rocket like the DH-1, a cheap high powered laser diode. The development of a hybrid turbine/rocket, durable and light high temperature ceramics, inexpensive 3d printing of large high quality metal parts. Each one of these has large secondary effects, but as for sources of high quality mcgruffinite there are plenty. You don’t even need high quality Handwavium to make most space operas to work as long as we are talking within the solar system.
I can find or think up a number of others, but space travel in my mind all it is going to take one good technology or high class company and one very determined businessman. Once space starts to open we will find plenty of reasons to go.

thank you for that bit of info. Where did you find it?

TOM said...

About resource gathering in space : what if they dont sell the material on Earth, but use it directly to build new satellites, deep space probes and telescopes, anti meteor defence systems, zero-G factories (i read certain stuff can be only produced in weightlessness) space stations, ships, luxury hotels, skyhooks?

(What i really care about is the future of non rocket based methods, with chem fuel, mass ratio and launch costs are quite high.)

Anonymous said...


thank you for that bit of info. Where did you find it?

I got the data from

You might want to checkout They have interesting articles and forums on manned spaceflight.


Jim Baerg said...

Katzen re: antimatter rockets:
If we could cheaply make (or collect) & compactly store milligram quantities of antimatter, it would be most useful for getting the combination of high thrust & high ISP needed for SSTO spaceplanes. Fission or solar powered ion drives are pleny good enough for getting from LEO to most of the solar system.sometime

Sometime in the last few months I saw an article in Next Big Future about antimatter getting trapped in the Van Allen belts & the possibility of collecting it in useful quantities. So if that is feasible we get antimatter collectors in the Van Allen belts & the spaceplanes would sometimeBTW s take down enough antimatter for several launches.

To all BTW I added comments to some old posts:

Rick said...

Believe it or not, I have put up a new front page post, Wine-Dark Sea.

I have not yet caught up with the comments in this thread, and am slightly nervous about what may await me here.

TOM said...

(I also tryed to share my world building experiences in the previous worldbuilding topic.)

I think it is rather doubtful, that the Van Allen belt could have that much antimatter, maybe if we collect antimatter in the vicinity of the Sun.

Anonymous said...

I think that the estimates were in nanograms or tens of nanograms per week for the Van Allen Belt and micrograms per week for a solar orbit (or Mercury based collector). It seems a bit low, but perhaps sufficent to power SSTO's.


Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

Re : Skeptical Raptor aka Michael Simpson.

If you want to cite a laughing stock blog on this laughing stock blog be my guest. Simpson is so opposed to a mere hypothesis that he literally MADE SHIT UP and edited into several wiki pages, for the entire peer reviewed scientific universe to view and criticize. MAKING SHIT UP as in fabrication, deserves a bit of ire, no? It's not enough to point out to be bunch of delusional space cadets and SpaceX is going to attempt a first stage return to launch site vicinity reusable space flight with their reusable launch vehicle on their next ISS CRS resupply mission now scheduled for February 22, 2014. Cling to your delusions about conventional reusable space flight. I care not. This blog literally is outstanding for its nutty delusional impractical space flight crackpot ideas and obsolete paradigms.

Enjoy your day. I'll check back here later ... IN THE FUTURE!

Anonymous said...

I looked up Elifritz...he bills himself as Director of Research of an information company...that has no internet presence. The man is a fraud, a troll, and pretty damn full of himself. The man is a buzzkill of the lowest order.


Geoffrey S H said...

He also began most of his papers on that Tsilokovsky website by saying that they were for the benefit of the Augustine Committee. Might have fooled me were it not for the numerous star-trek references in them.

Thucydides said...

While anti matter has the greatest energy density of any known system, I suspect that the authorities on Earth are simply never going to allow it to be used on the surface of the planet, anywhere, ever.

Since it seems to be possible to collect anti protons in space, an orbital facility that collects and bottles small amounts as rocket fuel (either to heat large amounts of remass for a highly efficient rocket, or to provide energy directly) may, be considered acceptable, but will probably also be under very strict control as well.

Jim Baerg said...

I mentioned milligram quantities of antimatter since that releases about as much energy on anihilation as the fuel for a large rocket releases on burning. If the quantities of antimatter in one containment are in that range the care required to handle the antimatter is about as much as the care required for handling H2-O2 rockets. The important regulation for handling antimatter is to keep the quantities in any one container low.

Cordwainer said...

So if I'm reading things right and Katzen's/Heinlein's estimate of ground-to-orbit prices are doable then what I've been saying about modular satellites, tugs and depots might be practical in some near future setting, hmm!

I would tend to point out that it that it might make sense to make as much of your spare and repair infrastructure autonomous and only send humans up to repair the autonomous repair equipment rather than working directly on satellites. Of course you would most likely have some repairs that would require delicate repairs, but space isn't exactly a great place to make "delicate" repairs. You would probably want to "hot swap" modules and take modules back to an orbital garage for delicate repairs by human technicians.

Thomas Lee Elifritz said...

More 'buzzkill' for the intellectually and technologically crippled :

My essays and comments stand on their own merits. Not reading them certainly makes you oh so competent to comment on them.

Thucydides said...


Perhaps I am somewhat cynical after years of listening to screeching luddites against GMO crops, civil nuclear energy, fracking and other technologies and techniques that have demonstrated low risk (certainly no more than getting into a car and driving, anyway).

Small quantities of antimatter are still going to be viewed with suspicion, simply because the energy contained is so great. A Space Shuttle with a 2000 ton launch stack has a pretty considerable energy output on launch, telling someone that you have the same amount of energy in your suitcase sized magnetic bottle is probably going to raise some hackles (and consider that would become the ultimate suitcase bomb!)

I am somewhat more comfortable with the idea of on orbit harvest and use of antimatter, simply because it is going to be out of sight, out of mind for most people. Still, there are real implications for having magnetic bottles of antimatter in orbit, so there will also be resistence to the idea (perhaps more so from governments and military forces).

Anonymous said...

Something like the U. S. Department of Energy managing nuclear fuel, but in orbit? That sounds probable. Even though private companies run the production facilities, DoE still keeps a deathgrip on them.


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