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starship-design: The Next Thirty Years: A Business Vision

Reposted from SpaceDaily

The Next Thirty Years: A Business Vision
by Joe Schembrie
AstroTug Corporation

Seattle - July 19, 1999 - Thirty years ago, when the Apollo astronauts
became the first humans to voyage to the Moon, they surveyed the lunar
landscape and spoke of 'magnificent desolation.' Thirty years later, the
Moon is still as desolate as they left it. Will it be that way thirty years
from now?

Back in the 1960s, we had so many heady dreams that never came to pass. We
thought that the Apollo missions would be followed up by regular flights to
the Moon. There would soon be a refueling base, and then even colonies. Next
stop: Mars.

Why not? The government was spending 5.7 % of the federal budget on the
space program. Massive government spending would buy the rockets, the
stations, the moon bases. The best and brightest, attracted to government
service through selfless dedication, would plan every step. Enduring
motivation would be provided through government-mandated goals of national
prestige, defense, and science.

Then the taxpayers grumbled, and the ordering of governmental priorities was
altered. Thirty years of space-advocate cheerleading for public funding has
coincided with a seven-fold decline in NASA's budget and the indefinite
postponement of trips beyond Earth orbit. The bad news is, today we're in
competition before Congress with a million other bright ideas on how to
spend other people's tax money -- and all of them are 'for the children.'

The good news is, today we no longer have to rely solely on government to
advance the cause of human space exploration. The computer and
communications revolutions are creating an ever-increasing demand for
commercial satellites. A hundred-billion-dollar launch services market cries
out for cheap access to space. And what a market that big wants, it usually

Following is a brief scenario of how private enterprise might advance the
human space endeavor. It's not a call for a government industrial planning
agency. It's not a call for special subsidies. It's not the business plan of
any one company. It's simply some speculations on how that much-maligned
motivator known as 'short-term profit-seeking' may well lure us back to the
Moon -- this time not just to plant footprints, but to establish cities.

The Personal Space Initiative begins with cheap access to space. Reusable
Launch Vehicles are already being built which will replace the far more
expensive throwaway vehicles presently used to launch satellites. Within the
next four years, by 2004, surely one such vehicle will be orbiting payloads
for less than $1000/pound.

First-generation RLVs will be too small to place large payloads directly
into high orbit. Instead, they will launch satellite and orbital transfer
fuel on separate flights into Low Earth Orbit. A teleoperated space tug,
guided by humans and computers on the ground, will shepherd the satellite
and fuel together and push them toward Geosynchronous Earth Orbit -- and

For such LEO-to-GEO transfers, ion propulsion in place of chemical-fuel
propulsion will save thousands of pounds of fuel per space tug mission. With
fuel transported from Earth into low orbit costing $1000/pound, millions of
dollars will be saved per mission. NASA's Deep Space One probe has already
proven that ion propulsion is feasible for inner solar system space flight.
A reusable ion space tug can be built now and be ready for transorbital
missions when RLVs need them, around 2005.

Yet ion propulsion is slow to accelerate, and can take a month or more
pushing a satellite from LEO to GEO -- and time is a very critical cost
issue when satellite depreciation and interest charges run to millions of
dollars per month. An alternative, preferable source of high-thrust chemical
fuel for orbital transfer missions can be found on the Moon, where lunar ice
can be mined and converted into hydrogen-oxygen fuel by teleoperated
equipment, and then transported by teleoperated vehicles down to LEO for
only a few dollars per pound. 'Lunar Express' can be in service by 2007.

The satellite orbital transfer business will annually require hundreds of
thousands of pounds of lunar ice/fuel to be shipped from Luna to LEO. Why
couldn't humans ride to the Moon on the return trips? Perhaps by 2009, a
human will revisit the Moon aboard a teleoperated moon shuttle.

Humans on the Moon will prospect for rare metals. For an overall transport
cost which is a tiny fraction of their market value, gold, platinum,
palladium, and even silver mined on the Moon can be lifted into lunar orbit
with chemical rockets whose hydrogen-oxygen fuel is derived from lunar ice,
and then towed down to LEO with ion space tugs, and then dropped from LEO to
Earth's surface inside disposable atmospheric entry shells. Lunar rare
metals -- a potential twenty billion dollar a year industry -- should be
discovered by 2011.

In just four years, the California Gold Rush drew two hundred thousand
people across a continental divide as formidable in the nineteenth century
as the distance between Earth and Moon will be in the twenty-first. A
multi-billion dollar lunar mining industry could afford and rapidly attract
thousands of miners as soon as a major strike occurs. And with that
$1000/pound shipping charge from Earth, there will be a powerful incentive
to grow food, manufacture clothing, and construct habitats from local
materials. Accomplishing those tasks of lunar self-sufficiency will be
thousands of additional workers -- and entrepreneurs.

Lunar mining company executives will want to retain people rather than ship
them up from Earth in rapid rotation, and that means making the lunar
environment as hospitable as possible. Perhaps cities will resemble
something along the lines of multiple stadium-like enclosures, with a
transparent dome over a central parkland, ringed by condominiums and shops.
The first such lunar atrium, housing as many as a thousand humans, could be
erected by 2015.

As life on the Moon proceeds from magnificent desolation to comfortable
self-sufficiency, and second-generation RLVs bring the cost of space access
down to $100/pound or less, other reasons for lunar colonization open up.
There's space tourism. There's old folks retirement (for those in their late
seventies and older, low gravity can make the difference between an active
and sedentary lifestyle). And the environmental laws will be looser and the
taxes lower (we hope).

By 2030, the Moon could be speckled with numerous large domed ecospheres,
filled with trees and lakes gleaming beneath the earthlight, populated by
creative and industrious pioneers who consider themselves not so much the
offspring of earthly states as the founding citizens of an interplanetary

The Apollo astronauts saw a barren, airless, lifeless world that made them
glad to come home. The Moon has remained in that pristine but slaglike state
for thirty years. But thirty years from now, there will be enterprises and
cities, gardens and even young forests on the Moon.

How soon can this vision be realized? Ion tugs could be ready when RLVs are,
and once teleoperated vehicles are in routine service to the Moon, it will
be difficult to restrain humans from hitching rides. Creative individual
initiative and the profit motive could make it all happen sooner than
currently thought. What is certain is that the journey back to the Moon has
already begun.

With appropriately directed enthusiasm, all of this will be achieved in the
private sector, driven by market forces -- without grumbling taxpayers,
without subsidies, without the 'guidance' of a central planning agency --
for much less cost than grandiose governmental efforts. Giant political
leaps failed, but small private steps will not. There's just too much money
to be made. That's why, thirty years from now, there will be regular flights
to the Moon, and a refueling base, and even colonies. And perhaps well
before that time, there will be an intrepid lunar entrepreneur with enough
vision to say, "Next Stop: Mars."

Joe Schembrie, a lifelong space enthusiast, has a BS in Electrical
Engineering and an MBA from the University of Washington. An engineer who
has worked for the US Department of the Navy and the Boeing Airplane
Company, he is currently President of Astrotug, a company dedicated to the
development of teleoperated space tugs.