Saturday, May 26, 2007

ISDC 2007 - Day One

Well, I figure I should report my impressions of day one at the International Space Development Conference before I read any one else's , and while it's still somewhat fresh in my mind.

First of all, I have a little gripe. The traffic in and around Dallas is a nightmare. I don't know how it stacks up against other major metropolitan areas, but I've been stuck in Dallas traffic for a total of five hours now, and I've only been here two days. From what I'm beginning to learn from some locals is that the conference location at the Hotel Intercontinental could not be in a worse location as far as commuting goes. Hopefully the weekend traffic will be more merciful, although I'm skeptical since it is Memorial Day weekend.

I did get to see Shannon Lucid and Don Pettit give their presentation in the morning. During and after the lunch break I spent some time talking with folks in the halls and at the displays. This is the first ISDC I have attended, and really my first space related conference. So, it was fun talking to other people who are as passionate about space as I am.

The presentation by Drs. Lucid and Pettit was mostly about the mindset of living and working on the frontier. As both of them have been on long duration missions (six months on Mir for Dr. Lucid, and six months on ISS for Dr. Pettit), they have a unique perspective on life on the new frontier. Dr. Pettit has also recently taken part in a trek across Antarctica looking for meteorites; a journey which he paralleled with his stay on the ISS.

The pair discussed many different aspects of frontier life, but the one I was most interested in was the science of opportunity discussed by Dr. Pettit. He described the ISS and Antarctica as non-intuitive environments: places where everyday can bring new and unexpected experiences. In these environments, discoveries are just waiting to be made.

I wish he would have spent more time talking about those moments of discovery. In my opinion, this is one of the most important reasons why we are sending people into space. Most of the low-hanging fruit, in terms of scientific discovery, have been picked. To make new discoveries, someone has to study new phenomena, or possibly even well known phenomena in new environments. On Earth, this requires spending increasing large amounts to create these new environments in particle accelerators. However, their are many things about the universe that we take for granted just simply because we experience them every day. These things become part of our intuition and typically get pushed to the back of minds. By experiencing the non-intuitive environments, as Dr. Pettit describes, "...we can become children again, and experience the world with a child's curiosity". (quote paraphrased)

After lunch, I got to spend some time talking with James Bauer of Armadillo Aerospace. It is truly amazing what this small group has been able to accomplish. I can't help but think of Steve Wozniack hacking together the first Apple computers in his garage and the effect that effort had on the world of computing. I think that John Carmack and his team are poised to do the same thing for the world of rocketry.

Yes, Pixel was on display, and I got to tell you that this is an impressive machine. It's impressive mostly because it looks so simple. I've been to several Air & Space museums and have seen some of the rocket engines developed by and for NASA. Those things are a maze of wires and tubes and components. I think you really have to know what you are looking at to truly appreciate their design. However, Pixel is the very model of simplicity. I'm not trying to trivialize their work. I think the simplicity of their design is brilliant. Less parts means less things that could fail, which means (or could mean) greater reliability. It also means that they are cheaper and easier to build than your typical rocket engine; a feature the they intend to capitalize on as they move towards building their modular rocket design.

I also had the opportunity to talk with Tom Ligon of Energy Matter Conversion Corporation (EMC2). I've got to say that the system he is describing seems almost too good to be true. He claims that the power output of the fusor reactor scales with the seventh power of reactor radius. I asked him if there were any upper limits to this scaling. He replied that Dr. Bussard has thus far only considered reactor designs up to 6 meters in diameter. That is an enormous amount of energy. We're talking about 6 GW out of a roughly 6 meter diameter reactor (if I'm remembering correctly), and the output goes straight to DC; no more heat water turn turbine.

When someone makes that kind of prediction and only has preliminary experimental data to back it up, I can understand why it would meet with some skepticism. Still, if they are successful, this technology could literally change the world. Given that potential, I don't see why they would have any difficulty raising a couple of hundred million dollars they need to definitively establish its viability. But that's just it. I get the sense that the effort is strapped for cash. I have seen bigger grants awarded to academic institutions to conduct basic research. So, I can't help but think that there may be other factors at work behind the scenes.

Anyway, that's all for now. I try to post more in the next couple of days as I have time.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Second Carnival of Space

The second Carnival of Space is up and I actually have a submission in it. Hopefully, these carnivals will give me more incentive to write a post somewhat more frequently than once in a blue moon.

I do have a few ideas that I've been mulling over. However, the desire to complete my dissertation research has been trumping my desire to blog for a while now, and it will most likely continue to do so for the next few months. Still, I will try to make an effort to post a couple of times a month just to keep the Ol' blog from getting dusty.

Ad Astra Per Aspera.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bigelow Technology

Wow, this post has been sitting in my edit queue since last September. I think it's about time it saw the light of day. Jon Goff at Selenian Boondocks is once again on a roll with his Random Thoughts posts, and one of them actually hits pretty close to an idea that I've been considering for a while now. I hope to take some inspiration from Jon and try to post my half-baked ideas more often.

For some time now I've been contemplating alternative uses for Bigelow's habitats, as has Jon Goff (here and here). Jon mentions that there are many potential uses for the half-scale version, particularly when considering habitable structures that you want to move somewhere besides LEO. If I'm interpreting Jon correctly, he's advocating something similar to what I've come to think of as the Conestoga wagon of spacecraft. For the foreseeable future, this is probably going to be the easiest way to assemble a spacecraft off-Earth and I sincerely hope that Mr. Bigelow considers offering the Sundancer, or similarly sized module for such applications.

So, let's review what we know about Bigelow's plans. We'll start with some of the obvious applications for the habitat modules, for which Mr. Bigelow has provided some hints. In addition to the self-contained habitation modules (Sundancer and BA330) for use in LEO, he has also talked about assembling a lunar base at the L1 point, and then landing the whole thing at once on the lunar surface. Habitat modules for a base on Mars (or Phobos) would also not be that much of a stretch to imagine. The original Transhab, upon which the current modules are based, were designed to serve as crew habitats for a Mars-bound space craft. So, I wouldn't be surprised if the BA330, or a derivative thereof, eventually becomes the core of a reusable spacecraft for facilitating inner solar system exploration. A cislunar or cismartian cycler would be a useful application. However, in the near term, we would probably be more likely to see these modules being used as disposable service modules for extended manned missions beyond LEO (Moon, Mars, asteroids, etc.)

Mr. Bigelow has also recently stated that he intends to start trying to attract commercial interests as well as foreign governments as potential clients for leasing space aboard his habitats. The quoted lease rates seem very reasonable and could significantly lower the barrier to entry for parties wishing to conduct commercial activities in space. If he is successful, then this will mark a major turning point in the history of space exploration and development. This is the kind of reimagining of the future that we need to see more often.

As for myself, I find that the applications I tend to imagine generally fall into one of two categories: what can you do with prefabricated modules (or slightly modified variations), and what could you do with the materials and assembly techniques that are currently being developed to manufacture these modules.

Some time ago, I remember reading the patent granted to Bigelow Aerospace for the inflatable satellite bus and I began thinking about the types of payloads that one might integrate with a Bigelow habitat that would (a) benefit from the presence of a human crew, and (b) make the most use out of having access to both a shirt-sleeve environment and ready access to a perfect vacuum and/or microgravity environment. I came up with several possibilities, but the one I found most interesting was for an advanced propulsion laboratory.

Consider, if you will, installing a VASIMR engine inside of a Sundancer or BA-330. These modules would provide an ideal laboratory environment in which to develop and test the rocket design. If you've ever seen pictures of the VASIMR experimental setup, you realize that most of that structure is the vacuum chamber. The actual rocket is quite small by comparison. The entire structure could be made to fit inside of a Sundancer module with room to spare. Such propulsion modules could even eventually be used as components of larger spacecraft. Imagine being able to work on a spacecraft's engines without having to perform a risky EVA.

Any number of experimental testbed platforms could be constructed in a similar manner. (Hmmm... a crewed Hubble Space Telescope...). Even if the platform is not crewed full time, the ability to make repairs and upgrades in a shirt sleeve environment sounds very appealing to me.

It also occurs to me that the materials and technologies being developed at Bigelow Aerospace may have even more far reaching applications. For example, consider a future in which the material used to construct the various layers of the outer hull of the Bigelow habitats is delivered to orbit in bulk where it can then be assembled into a hull for a spacecraft or spacestation in essentially any arbitrary configuration. These materials and the hull designs would represent an amazing leap forward in our ability to build structures in space. Spacecraft and spacestation designs need no longer be confined to TinkerToy-like structures. We would no longer restricted to thinking in terms of aluminum canisters which are restricted in size and shape by the geometry of the payload fairing of their launchers.

Granted, there will need to be alot of research into how to actually do construction of this nature on-orbit, but I'm sure this is something we should be able to figure out within the next ten years. I would hope, though, that once Bigelow has a revenue stream being generated from his first few orbital stations, that he reserve at least one for his own use as an R&D shop.

These techniques will eventually have to be developed if we are ever going to establish a significant off-world presence. Up until now, the dual technical hurdles of delivering suitable construction materials to orbit and assembling them on a large scale have seemed almost insurmountable. Now, for the first time, I can finally begin to see how both of these difficulties may be overcome.

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