New Worlds, Or New Moondoggle?
by Bill Walker
planet is the cradle of mind, but one cannot live in a cradle
forever." ~ Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, 1911
Travel: A Branch of Ancient History?
thirty-five years ago, men could walk on the Moon. Today they can't;
the only moon rockets on this planet are serving as lawn decorations
in Huntsville and Houston. Is this because 21st-century
technology is less advanced than that of 1969? Obviously not. America’s
failure in space is due to our re-enslavement to medieval economics;
we believe that government owns everything outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
recent Bush Administration proposal for a new NASA Moondoggle promises
to repeat all the mistakes of the past. It would give NASA another
one or two hundred billion dollars (estimates vary) to add to the
trillion or so (in today’s money) already spent on various government
prestige displays in space over the last 50 years. But there is
no Administration proposal to allow private property rights into
space. Without private property, there will be no markets, no profitable
commerce, and no permanent progress in space. How can I be so sure?
Because it has all happened before, both on Earth’s seas and in
Imperial Chinese NASA
is well known for inventing gunpowder, paper, silk, the compass,
the rocket, etc. centuries before Europeans could even copy them.
But it is less well known that the Chinese actually had an Age of
Exploration long before Columbus.
1405 to 1420, Chinese fleets under the eunuch admiral Zheng He visited
India, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and Africa’s east coast. The ships
were gargantuan for the time, some with more than ten masts and
with displacements up to 500 tons. The fleets made seven long voyages,
carrying Ming vases and other treasures to impress the distant civilizations
they visited. They brought a giraffe (and an insufficiently impressed
Sri Lankan ruler) back to the Emperor.
the winds of Imperial fashion changed, and the voyages stopped.
Not only did the "treasure fleets" never again set sail,
but the shipyards were destroyed along with the ship's blueprints
and most of the records of the voyages. Later Emperors implemented
actively anti-maritime policies. By 1520, when Europeans had already
been exploring the Americas for three decades, it was illegal for
a private Chinese subject to own a ship with more than two masts.
The future belonged to the Europeans, with their smaller ships…
and their vastly greater level of private ownership and economic
The First Moondoggle
an exact parallel with Imperial Chinese sea exploration, seven Moon-landing
voyages were launched (though Apollo #13 had to abort; remember,
it’s bad luck to be superstitious). Then they stopped. Three years
after Armstrong's landing, the first and last NASA Moon field geologist
walked back into a LEM ascent stage and returned to Earth to take
off his helmet and become a senator. No one has been to the Moon
since. No one CAN go to the Moon today. Just like the mandarins,
NASA destroyed the rockets. Those Saturn Vs and Saturn Is we visit
in the museums today were real, operational rockets . . . tossed
away and left to collect dust.
1972 NASA has not failed to spend money; it will spend over $15
billion this year. Military space programs are reported to spend
even more. But the NASA and military rocket fleets of today are
inferior to those of 1969. The Saturn rockets were replaced in NASA
service after an indecisive hiatus of many years by the Shuttle.
The Shuttle launches payloads at a higher cost per pound, launches
only 29 tons versus the Saturn's 125, and is more vulnerable to
launch delays through the loss of a single vehicle. And the Shuttle
can never go higher than low Earth orbit.
the remaining Shuttles are not flying at all, having been grounded
for safety refits until May at the earliest. If the Shuttle ever
does stagger into orbit again, it will carry even less useful cargo;
NASA has loaded it down with "safety gear" to repair its
own flaking tiles. Now and for the foreseeable future, American
astronauts can only reliably travel to the International Space Station
by buying tickets for seats in obsolete 1970s-technology Russian
has no concrete plans to remedy this situation. As John Cserep of
the Space Frontier Foundation points out:
unbroken string of cancelled vehicle programs stretches back to
the Reagan Administration's X-30 NASP, and continued with the
X-33, X-34, X-38, 2GRLV and, most recently, the Space Launch Initiative
or SLI. The two remaining "X-vehicle" programs – the X-37 and
X-43 – are both well behind schedule and over budget, making their
first Moondoggle proved that even a government agency could put
men on the Moon. But it also proved that government space efforts
are a dead end, unless private property, markets, and freedom follow
them. There is a huge legacy of never-used space technology from
the Moon race period, as I will outline below. This technology could
indeed let men return to the Moon, protect life on Earth from asteroid
extinction events, even bring new life to Mars. But this is only
possible if we abandon the Imperial Chinese model of centralized
bureaucracy. The Solar System can only be opened by multiple ventures
launched by industrialists and homesteaders.
Legacy of the Space Race
people have the impression that space is impossibly difficult, waiting
for far-future technological breakthroughs. Nothing could be farther
from the mundane truth; rocket science just ain’t "rocket science"
anymore. In the 1960s NASA developed not one but three nuclear rocket
technologies: NERVA, ORION, and POODLE. They finished and tested
NERVA… then wandered off and forgot it.
was a nuclear rocket engine that worked much like the fictional
engines in Robert Heinlein's 1940s book, Rocket Ship Galileo.
A nuclear reactor heated hydrogen and expelled it through a nozzle.
NERVA-style engines were tested from the late 1950s through 1972
when the program was shut down. Twenty-three different engines were
tested. The later models ran for hours at a time, producing 250,000
pounds of thrust. One of the test engines is in on view outside
the Huntsville space museum; there
are some nice pictures of NERVA here.
nuclear engines tested in the mid-1960s were twice as efficient
as any chemical rocket. Although NERVA actually ran cooler than
a chemical rocket, it was exhausting pure hydrogen instead of water
or water and CO2. Since temperature is the average kinetic
energy of molecules, at any given temperature H2 molecules
have to go a lot faster than H2O molecules. This gave
NERVA’s exhaust about twice the "specific impulse" (newton-seconds
of thrust per kilo of fuel) of any chemical rocket.
was a potential quantum leap ahead in space propulsion, but not
just because it was more efficient. NERVA carried its energy in
its nuclear fuel rods, not in its hydrogen tanks. NERVA rockets
can refuel anywhere there is liquid or gas, cruising the solar system
for years before needing to replace the nuclear fuel rods. A NERVA-powered
cruiser could pump water out of the ice inside the thousands of
ex-comets that we now call "near-earth asteroids," or pump its tanks
full of CO2 from the Martian or Venusian atmosphere,
or methane from Titan's. So instead of trying to bring all the fuel
it would ever need from Earth, a NERVA could live off the land.
Once launched from Earth a NERVA could shuttle between the Moon,
asteroid colonies, and Mars settlements for years.
of course I'm not saying that we in the 21st century
should spend our time restoring retro 1960s rocket designs. Nuclear
material science has progressed far since 1965; a NERVA built with
modern materials would run hotter and be much more efficient. And
there are hundreds of other propulsion concepts out there, both
nuclear and non-nuclear. Future space transportation may use jet
bottom stages (like Rutan’s Spaceship One), electromagnetic launch
tracks, graphite tethers hanging from orbiting asteroids, gas-fission
reactors, fusion engines, combinations of the above, or technologies
still unknown. But NERVA serves as proof that sufficiently powerful
engines have already been built once, by people working without
personal computers, the Internet, or modern materials science. There
is no technological barrier to space colonization.
is no intrinsic economic barrier to space colonization, either.
Space travel is not "too expensive for anyone but government"…
unless it’s being done by a government (in which case it may be
too expensive period). We already routinely use energy in the amounts
necessary for space travel. It takes about as much fuel energy to
get from the US to Australia at 550 mph, plowing through air all
the way, as it does to get into orbit. Once in orbit travel becomes
much cheaper and easier than on Earth. Even moving mountains becomes
easy in the vacuum of space. Compared to everyday industrial activities
such as drilling oil miles beneath the ocean floor, maintaining
thousands of passenger airliners, building tunnels under the English
Channel or bridges across the Baltic, the capital requirements for
private space ventures are modest.
economic barriers that do exist in space are solely due to NASA’s
Soviet-style organization. The Saturn V, for instance, carried all
its own fuel for a trip to the Moon… and back. If a 747 were built
that way, it could only take three people to Australia round-trip
and the aircraft would be thrown away each time. If markets were
allowed to flourish, entrepreneurs would set up fuel stations (among
thousands of other businesses) in appropriate locations. Even chemical
rockets would be more practical if they could purchase fuel on the
Moon or other destinations. Nuclear rockets refueling at each stop
would make inner Solar System travel routine.
Worlds Of Private Property
mandarins in the 1430s tried to pretend that nothing outside the
Middle Kingdom was important. Likewise, our mandarins are trying
to pretend that nothing outside their existing national borders
(and docile, taxable populations) could be of any significance.
Private property is forbidden even in the Earth’s oceans (with predictable
tragedy-of-the-commons results on fish stocks and pollution), let
alone in the rest of the Solar System. This absence of private opportunity
has caused a general blindness to the rest of the Solar System in
the business community. Since it can’t be owned, it doesn’t exist.
are some limited exceptions. Communication satellites have become
a mature multi-billion dollar industry. Weather and survey satellites
are economically important. And of course all the ballistic missiles
aimed at the world’s cities will pass through space on their way
to their undefended civilian targets. But these are rather peripheral
uses for the entire Solar System.
a 21st-century version of the Homestead Acts were passed,
what would a Solar System pulsing with commercial operations look
like? At this point we are like Europeans in 1500s trying to see
the commercial opportunities in the Americas. We will not be able
to predict even a fraction of a percent of the eventual wealth and
culture that will flow out of space civilization. But even the little
that we can foresee with certainty surpasses all Earthbound economic
accomplishment. There will be trillionaires out there; there’s platinum
in them there asteroids.
the Mountains to Mohammed
it costs over $25,000 to put a kilogram into Earth orbit by Space
Shuttle, whether you’re sending up a computer or a liter of water.
Even Boeing subsidiary Sea
Launch charges $1,000 per kilogram, sending your cargo up on
old Russian rockets. Ironically, it is easier to transport bulk
cargo into Earth orbit from millions of miles through space than
from the ground. Physics will probably ensure that this remains
true even when private launch companies take over from governments.
of "near-Earth asteroids" are known; more are discovered
every year. Some asteroids are energetically "closer" than the Moon.
In terms of velocity needed to reach them from Earth orbit and/or
capture and move them to Earth orbit, some asteroids are only a
couple hundred miles an hour away. Asteroids range from pure metal
types richer than any Earth-surface ore (Earth ores are oxide or
sulfide rocks, metal asteroids are pure metal; many contain more
platinum than any Earth ore), to "rocks," to carbonaceous
chondrites rich in water and carbon.
it may seem outrageously expensive to talk about moving a whole
mountain of ore millions of miles through space, in terms of energy
it is much easier than moving the same millions of tons of material
out of Africa on trucks, then on ships across the ocean, then back
onto trucks, etc. An asteroid in orbit has no friction to obstruct
movement; even the slightest push in the right direction will accumulate.
A nuclear rocket could move a carbonaceous asteroid by pumping water
or other volatiles from the core; a "mass-driver" could
throw chunks of rock or metal asteroid; less patient asteroid miners
could deliver gentle kicks with nuclear bombs.
you happen to be of the persuasion that is terrified by all things
nuclear, remember that a large proportion of the Earth-crossing
asteroids will eventually hit the Earth with gigaton explosions
if we DON’T alter their courses. If you really care about the long-term
future of life on Earth, moving asteroids is an essential task to
prevent extinctions (and possibly a permanent Ice Age). Asteroid
mining provides the ability to defend the ecosystem as a free byproduct.
minor safety note: in 2004 a smallish asteroid passed less than
8,000 miles from the Earth. It would have made a mere one-megaton
blast had it hit. Of course had it hit in India, Pakistan, Israel,
or any other hair-trigger hot spot, it might have been rapidly followed
by many other man-made blasts. Asteroid mining would warn against
bits of metal asteroids may be splashed down into shallow seas and
mined for use on Earth. But the real significance of asteroid mining
is that it will allow construction of large, cheap, safe structures
in space. Solar System civilization will probably parallel the history
of the Americas in this way. While there was some initial fishing
and mining for return to Europe, the real significance of the New
World was the civilization and people that grew here.
World For Life: Terraforming Mars
use for moving asteroids and/or comets around is to "terraform"
Mars or other bodies. A variety of techniques have been suggested,
from adding fluorocarbons to create a greenhouse effect to simply
adding water from carbonaceous chondrite impacts. All the climate-changing
effects that worry us so much on Earth could be beneficial to a
world already empty of life or mostly so.
probably has enough frozen water and CO2 to provide an ecosystem
for plants… if it could all be melted at the same time. Terraforming
may seem like a big project to us now, but where else can we put
all those mammoths once we restore them from frozen DNA?
US fusion energy research concentrates on fusion reactions that
release a large fraction of their energy in fast neutrons. This
neutron radiation requires thick and costly shielding, and the neutrons
will perform alchemy on the structure of the reactor itself, changing
harmless elements into radioactive isotopes. So even if current
fusion reactors can be made to produce more energy than they consume,
they will still produce large amounts of radioactive waste.
is a fusion reaction that produces only heat energy and no neutrons.
It uses helium-3, a fairly common isotope of helium, in a reaction
with tritium. One great advantage of this reaction is that it would
not require vast amounts of shielding, so it could be used in mobile
applications (such as rocket engines).
there is no good source of helium-3 on Earth. (The helium that we
drill from underground is actually the alpha particles emitted by
radioactive elements deep in the Earth’s crust). The gas-giant planets
(Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) contain large amounts of
helium-3. John Lewis has suggested in his book Mining
The Sky that this helium-3 could be separated out by cooling
(helium-3 displays different properties at low temperatures than
the more common helium-4). Fusion releases so much energy that the
energy necessary to travel to the gas giant and back is a small
amount of the energy available.
one day tankers may cruise from Uranus or Saturn to Earth, holds
full of clean-burning nuclear fusion fuel. Or not; just because
there is a potential energy payback does not mean that there is
an economic return. Better sources of energy may be discovered.
But as long as the discovery process occurs on the free market,
no one will be forced to pay for any boondoggles.
Recipe For New Worlds: Freedom and Private Property, Not Moondoggles
President Bush wants to go down in history as the President who
REALLY put man on the Moon to stay, he shouldn’t give one more billion
to NASA, or to the Russian kleptocracy that is currently supplying
NASA with transport to the ISS. New worlds aren’t developed by government
bureaucracies, but by industries, foundations, and individuals.
To allow some freedom into the Solar System, the US should do the
the regulatory barriers to American space companies operating
from equatorial bases (e.g. the likes of Beal Aerospace, Boeing
Sea Launch, etc.). This means no more "export controls" against
American-made satellite-launch rockets on their way to equatorial
launch sites, and no more import controls on American companies
buying ex-Soviet missiles and commercializing them. Fewer foreign
nuclear missiles aimed at us would be a very good thing in itself,
and US restrictions on their acquisition by private companies
(in place since the elder Bush Administration) are exceptionally
stupid and dangerous trade restrictions.
allow a private property rights regime in space. This means
allowing private homesteading and trading of extraterrestrial
property of all kinds: asteroids, planetary surface, orbital
slots, etc. If someone (from whatever country) tows an asteroid
back into Earth orbit, they should own it. Likewise if they
construct a facility on the Moon or Mars, it should be theirs.
Naturally there will be massive whining in the UN from "nations"
whose rulers subsist mainly on US Aid To Dependent Dictators.
Uganda once tried to claim the geosynchronous satellites over
their country, too; but since they don’t have any rockets their
claims were eventually treated with the respect that they deserved.
out US government space transportation needs, most military
and all civilian. There is no more reason for NASA to be in
the launch business than for the Food Stamp program to be in
the farming business. If NASA wants to go somewhere in the Solar
System, they can buy a ticket from a private launch contractor,
with competitive bidding.
three remaining 1970s-era Shuttles … if anyone can get liability
insurance on them.
years since Armstrong has been long enough to demonstrate the futility
of NASA’s bureaucratic model. America is not Imperial China, and
shouldn’t be repeating the same mistakes. It is time to allow private
property in the rest of the Solar System.
Walker [send him mail]
works as a Research Associate in telomere biology at an undisclosed
(thanks to legal threats from his tax-financed employer) location.
© 2005 LewRockwell.com